Collegedale, Tennessee's city attorney and its city manager shot down discussions Monday evening to give city employees, as well as the city itself, more protection from false accusations and to create an appeals process for terminations.
Commissioner Ethan White proposed the idea during an at-times-tense commission workshop meeting, noting the public's questioning of why the city doesn't already have such a policy.
"We're an at-will employer, and our city manager form of government doesn't allow any form of appeals, correct?" asked Vice Mayor Tim Johnson.
The city's charter doesn't specifically use the words "at-will," city attorney Sam Elliott said. But it does state that all employees "serve at the pleasure of the city manager."
"There are cities, Chattanooga, for example. I don't know about East Ridge — most of the small cities around here do not provide a property right for employment," he said.
Chattanooga does have an appeals process. A Chattanooga police officer can appeal a decision and have a hearing before an administrative law judge. That judge then decides whether the discipline should be upheld or if the officer should be re-employed.
"For us it's very important that when we've decided that person doesn't need to wear a badge it's critical that we have built something that we can defend if we go into an [administrative law judge] hearing," Chattanooga police Chief David Roddy has previously said.
East Ridge also has a hearing process. The Personnel Board of East Ridge recommended fired police Chief J.R. Reed be reinstated, though demoted, after a July hearing.
Having a "property right to employment" simply means that a public employee has a property interest in their job, which gives it constitutional protection.
The interpretation is rooted in a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court case — Cleveland Board of Education v. Loudermill — that linked a government employee's employment with property.
And because the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that the government cannot deprive a citizen of their property or liberty without first giving them due process — or the opportunity to be heard and defend themselves — public employees can sue the government for monetary relief if said government doesn't follow those due process protections.
Those protections don't exist in the private sector, though.
Elliott left it up to the commission to decide whether it wanted to implement such a process, but added that it "does create a level of complication and it — you know, 'at-will' gives you a flexibility that you otherwise don't have."
He explained that if employees did have property rights included with their employment, there would have to be a hearing process, which would also mean the employees would have to be given proper notice of termination and an opportunity to be heard.
"Sometimes they will request to have counsel present, so you may have a little mini trial," Elliott said. " If there is a police officer involved, then they have to have a lawyer. If they want one.
"There is state law that says if you do have a property right in employment [in] your city, then a police officer has certain rights that particularly apply to them," he continued. "As a matter of fact, the [officer Robert] Bedell, and I think the other officers, in filing their suit note that right. They are wrong. They don't have that right.
"Yeah, some people do it but... my job is to advise you on liability and complication ... It is the spirit of this charter that employees serve at [the city manager's] pleasure and it is my recommendation ... that you stick with that just because it adds potential for legal liability."
Johnson said he doesn't think the city terminates people "willy nilly," and that his concern is, "if you did this ... I think you're opening the door for a union," Johnson said.
"Which I have the right to join," White responded.
Commissioner Debbie Baker said she trusts administrators' judgment and understands, "with the media and everything that's been going on," but thought that police officers should "feel comfortable coming and talking and not feeling like they're being pre-judged or they don't have an ear to listen to.
"I think that's one of the major issues is that they don't feel like they can speak openly. I think some things have got to be rectified."
The discussion ended with City Manager Ted Rogers saying, "I think it's best we stick with what we have."
The discussion comes after four police officers claim they were either fired or forced to resign for helping the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation in its inquiry into the alleged quota system.
As early as 2015, a lawsuit states, city administration began documenting productivity of its police officers and began setting a certain number of "enforcement activities" and "patrol activities" that needed to be achieved on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.
Enforcement activities mean written citations or arrests, and patrol activities include neighborhood, business and school patrols.
Also discussed in Monday's meeting was a request from Mayor Katie Lamb for a list to be compiled of all open records requests and how much each has cost the city in employee labor.
"I'd like to know how much employee time is actually [used]," she said. " ... I was just curious after reading these articles [on open records policies]."
Contact Rosana Hughes at email@example.com or 423-757-6327 with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.