La Center must restore man’s job

City didn’t follow rules, arbitrator says, in firing unionized wastewater employee

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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The city of La Center must reinstate a fired employee and pay him back wages totaling about $40,000 due to a state arbitrator’s ruling that the employee was wrongfully terminated.

The employee union appealed the city’s decision to fire wastewater treatment plant operator Jeff Adler to the state’s Public Employment Relations Commission, arguing the termination violated the collective bargaining agreement.

A PERC arbitrator, James Paulson, held a hearing in La Center on Sept. 7 and issued his ruling last week. Paulson ordered the city to reinstate Adler and pay him for lost wages dating back to his termination March 18. Adler’s termination is to be reduced to a written warning.

As a result of the ruling, the city owes Adler about $40,000, said Suzanne Levis, the city’s finance director.

“It is unfortunate that precious public resources were wasted by the city in its wrongful attempt to discipline Mr. Adler. That money could have been spent correcting the obvious managerial and supervisory failures at the facility,” union attorney Patrick Emmal said in a written statement.

The city cited prior disciplinary action, including three written letters of reprimand and a one-day suspension, as justification for firing Adler.

“The PERC arbitrator’s decision is unfortunate for the city. Suffice to say, the city defends its right to manage while holding employees to the highest degree of accountability,” Mayor Jim Irish said in a written statement.

Adler was hired in April 2008. His supervisors — Sue Lawrence, wastewater systems supervisor, and Jeff Sarvis, public works director — issued written reprimands Dec. 31, 2008, Dec. 28, 2009, and June 2, 2010. On June 2, 2010, Adler also received a one-day suspension for “lack of attention to critical processes,” according to city disciplinary files. The suspension also included a warning that “further disciplinary action will result in immediate termination,” according to the files.

The incident that resulted in Adler’s termination occurred Jan. 28, 2011. On that day, Adler changed a setting on the wastewater treatment plant. At the end of the day, he submitted a sample to Lawrence, as was procedure, according to Paulson’s written ruling.

The color of the sample was much too dark, indicating the system wasn’t working properly. Lawrence tested the sample and found the system was at risk of being damaged as a result of Adler’s change. However, there was no evidence that the wastewater treatment plant was actually damaged, according to the ruling.

Following the incident, Adler met with his supervisors for a pre-disciplinary hearing and was subsequently fired.

The union argued Adler was not aware his job was in jeopardy for his actions on Jan. 28. Adler wasn’t given any specific standards to use when making changes to the treatment plant system. In addition, the union argued Adler’s actions didn’t damage the system and didn’t warrant discipline or termination, according to Paulson’s written ruling.

The city argued Adler’s prior disciplinary action for unacceptable job performance and the most recent incident demonstrated a pattern of carelessness, despite his supervisors’ providing additional training and guidance.

The city also argued the termination followed appropriate progressive discipline guidelines as required by the collective bargaining agreement, according to the ruling.

Paulson determined the city didn’t prove during the hearing that Adler had a pattern of poor performance. Therefore, he determined, the disciplinary progression to termination wasn’t justified.