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Split Vote Leaves Policy Unchanged

By Staff | Sep 3, 2008

An abstention and a split vote of the Palo Alto County Board of Supervisors left a personnel policy for the Secondary Road Department unchanged Tuesday morning. However, the issue will be revisited following discussion of the issue and vote.

The issue arose last week with a concern over the rate of pay for Secondary Road employees convicted of Operating While Intoxicated. Since some secondary road employee job descriptions include a requirement for the employee to obtain a Commercial Drivers’ License, (CDL), any OWI suspension results in the suspension of a CDL for a period of one year under federal guidelines.

The current county guidelines allow for an employee convicted of OWI to keep their job, along with full insurance benefits, vacation, sick leave and other leave time during the time their drivers’ license is under suspension. An employee’s hourly rate of pay is reduced from their regular pay grade to a lower level for the time of suspension of driving privileges, until they are able to regain their license to drive. Presently, the policy would affect two employees.

However, members of the Board of Supervisors felt the reduction in pay, approximately 30 percent, was too severe, and raised the possibility of changing the policy. Palo Alto County Engineer Joel Fantz was not in favor of making a change in the policy, and coupled with the need to find answers to some questions raised in the discussion, the issue was tabled.

On Tuesday, the board revisited the issue, and started the discussion by noting they had received contacts from the public over the issue.

“I got more calls and stop-ins at the office on this topic than any other,” Fantz told the boar. “One person said they saw both sides of the issue, but the rest didn’t.”

Supervisor Jerry Hofstad noted he had a couple people discuss the issue with him and that they were split, one saying such issues weren’t anyone’s business but the individual involved.

Fantz reported that while a person’s privilege to drive is suspended on an OWI charge, they cannot operate any vehicle with a motor on road or in the road right-of-way. “In our case, both of these employees are eligible for Work Permits, but they will have to purchase the high-risk, SR22 insurance and also install an ignition interlock system on any vehicle that they operate on the work permit, all at their own expense, not the county’s.”

The ignition interlock is essentially a Breathalyzer that the vehicle operator must blow into before the vehicle can be started.

“Can these people drive a road grader once they have a license back?” asked Hofstad. “If they can do that, then they’re working and should get more pay.”

Hofstad paused. “My idea would be that until they can get a work permit, they get half their pay. Then, when they buy the SR22 insurance and the interlock device, they would be paid 95% of their pay, and earn vacation and other benefits at 95% as well. When they could get their CDL back, and have a review, they’d go back to 100%.”

One of the sticking points in the policy was the fact that a recent change in the federal guidelines for CDL’s increased OWI suspension times to 12 months, instead of six months. In Iowa, a first-offense OWI suspension of a regular drivers’ license lasts six months.

Fantz was asked for a recommendation. “Respectfully, I would rather not make one. I’ve visited with all of you about this and I was told that there should be a change and that there were enough votes to change this policy. My goal is to prevent you from doing any harm to the county in this.”

“I think we should stay with our policy,” noted Supervisor Ron Graettinger, “but maybe the second six months could be different. If they didn’t need the interlock after they get a regular license back, they could get higher pay. I could see doing something different after the first six months.”

“I’d kind of like to wait a week to get some more comment from the public,” Supervisor Ed Noonan said. “I think there needs to be some kind of change.”

“Let’s get this settled and over with,” Board Chair Leo Goeders said.

Hofstad re-stated his proposal, and then offered it as a motion. Noonan offered a second to the motion.

At that point, Supervisor Keith Wirtz spoke up. “Mr. Chairman, I would like to respectfully abstain from voting on this issue.”

Goeders called for a roll call vote on the motion. Hofstad and Noonan voted aye, while Graettinger cast a nay vote. Goeders also voted nay, and with Wirtz’ abstention, the motion failed, leaving the policy unchanged for now.

“Do you want to review this issue in six months?” Fantz asked.

“I think we have to,” Graettinger said. “After six months, people can get a license and that would change things, but I’d like one more week to clarify things and think this out some more.”

“Personnel issues are the toughest part of this job for me,” Fantz said to the supervisors. “I know you all care about these people, and so do I. That’s why these issues are so hard to deal with.”