BY PHILLIP WILLIAMS, Constable
GILMER–Upshur County Commissioners Court on Nov. 15 appointed former county juvenile probation officer Ronnie Mitchell as Precinct 3 constable, and took no action on a controversial proposal to make a change in paying employees’ unused vacation time–an idea which drew protests or expressions of confusion from some workers who were present.
After a 40-minute closed session in which the court interviewed Mitchell and another applicant for the constable post, former Big Sandy Police Chief Ronnie Norman, commissioners named Mitchell to replace Stanley Jenkins, who resigned effective Oct. 31. Mitchell is also a former Gladewater police officer.
Precinct 4 Commissioner Mike Spencer presided at the Nov. 15 meeting in the absence of County Judge Dean Fowler, who was attending a school.
The agenda said the pay proposal was to pay unused vacation time to employees who are exempt from overtime pay, leaving 48 hours on the books going forward and not paying unused vacation time when workers leave the county’s employ.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Frank Berka argued the proposal involved a “matter of doing things right” that had not been done correctly because the county’s policy and procedures manual was unclear. He said some exempt employees have more vacation time than they should, while others have none and that the county faced a “hodgepodge of things we need to clean up.”
He said the proposal was to pay off four employees down to 48 hours, and to “bank” 48 hours for those with no accumulated time. Spencer added the action “makes the policy clear.”
But county maintenance supervisor David Womble asked why he should give 48 hours to the county as, under the proposal, “I stand to lose 48 hours of pay. . .That’s not right anywhere.” When Berka replied the court would investigate that, Womble said, “I’m not gonna lose 48 hours, Frank, and be happy about it.”
Sheriff Larry Webb said he had two employees affected by the proposed change and asked the court research it before voting. His chief deputy for the county jail, James Grunden, asked the court “What are you gaining?”
Precinct 1 Commissioner Paula Gentry said the exempt employees should not have received the hours to begin with. Grunden replied he had been docked pay when he missed a day of work, and later said he had two weeks credit on the books, “but you’re taking them away.”
Said Berka, “We haven’t had accurate time sheets,” nor updated the policy manual in many years. He said the Texas Assoclation of Counties approved the proposed change, but Womble replied he had probably given the county 15 days of work, which he thought could be verified.
When Elections Administrator Lory Harle asked who was exempt, Berka said two categories: professional workers, or supervisory workers with two or more workers under their supervision, and who spend more than half their time supervising.
When Gentry made a motion to pay vacation time to the exempt employees, District Attorney Billy Byrd expressed concern that could expose the county to legal action from some workers since some employees were being paid, but not others, despite them having the “same amount of time or more.”
When Byrd recommended tabling the matter “so we can address legal issues,” Gentry withdrew her motion.
Byrd said he had not known until the day before that a committee with county employees had recommended the change.
Precinct 2 Commissioner Don Gross moved to table the issue, but the motion died for lack of a second, after which Gentry said, “Being accountable to employees and taxpayers alike in this county is so hard.”
Spencer told employees present to have their elected officials bring questions to the committee and the court moved on to other matters on the agenda without taking any votes on the issue.