The Mount Airy Town Council has amended the town’s charter to make it harder for the five-member council to override the mayor’s decision to fire employees.
The resolution changing the town’s charter reverses an action by the council in 2010 that required a simple majority — or three members — of the council to reject the firing of a town employee.
The council on Monday voted to require a super majority — or four eligible members — of the council to overturn the mayor’s decision.
The vote was 3-2, with councilmen David Blais and Bob King opposed. Councilmen Peter Helt, Chris Everich and Scott Strong voted for the change.
The mayor’s powers to dismiss town workers has been debated since 2009, when former Mount Airy Mayor David Pyatt resigned amid complaints that he threatened town officials and staff with being fired.
Following Pyatt’s resignation, the five-member council passed a resolution that changed the town charter to require a simple majority to override the mayor’s firing powers. Prior to the 2009 incident the council could not override the mayor’s decision to terminate town employees, according to Mount Airy Mayor Patrick Rockinberg.
Blais said Monday that he was hesitant to change the charter because of the past issues with Pyatt.
Pyatt, who was both mayor and council president at the time, resigned his mayorship and was replaced by council President Peter Helt by a vote of the council. Pyatt replaced Frank Johnson, who resigned from the post in February 2009.
“At the time that this was brought up, we had an unelected mayor who basically stepped over his bounds and was basically threatening individuals with their jobs,” Blais said. “I think we’re swinging the pendulum back away from that [employee] protection that we have now.... Changing the charter only benefits one person, and it benefits the mayor.”
Rockinberg said that the change to the charter is appropriate.
"The power has been somewhat restored to where it should be on the executive side of the government,” he said during an interview with The Gazette on Tuesday. "Adjusting the termination process for the super majority just makes sense as the mayor is charged with supervising the employees on a day-to-day basis.... I’d like to thank the councilmembers that supported this measure as it will allow us to improve our service to the citizens of Mount Airy.”
Rockinberg was not at Monday’s council meeting.
Under the new resolution, the council president also is ineligible to vote on the town council’s review of a termination if at the time he or she is also the mayor, acting mayor or terminated the person under review.
“I’m conflicted about this...,” King said. “[The mayor] is the executive, and this is the authority that he wants, but I was also sitting out in the audience when this was put in for a very specific reason, and I’m just a little hesitant because of that.... I understand where the mayor is coming from but I also feel that it is just a tad of protection for people so that they can do the right thing and not fear for their jobs because of it.”
Everich said the town employee handbook should protect the staff from being terminated without cause.
“We now have a process in place,” he said. “The employee handbook specifically describes all the numerous steps that have to take place in order to terminate an employee. Following that employee handbook means that there’s not going to be any arbitrary firings.”
Traditionally, the hiring and firing of town employees has been within the mayor’s power, Helt said.
“We took this power back from the mayor, it was something the mayor always had,” he said. “This has traditionally been the mayor’s business, this has not traditionally been our business.... We are basically requiring that it has to be a serious issue for [the council] to take it up.”
The mayor appoints all officers and town employees — except council secretary and town clerk — with the consent of the council. All officers and employees that serve at the pleasure of the mayor may have their employment terminated by the mayor at any time “without cause,” according to the resolution adopted Monday.
In Maryland, employees work "at the will" of their employers, meaning, in the absence of a contract, agreement or policy saying otherwise, an employee may be hired or fired for almost any reason — fair or not — or for no reason at all.
Blais said that due to the state’s at-will-state status, the handbook will not protect employees if a situation similar to the one with Pyatt occurs again.
“Maryland is an at-will-state,” Blais said. “So the employee handbook — as great as it is — if the mayor wants to fire somebody, he can fire somebody outside of the employee handbook.”
Helt said that if a mayor disregarded the policies of the handbook in the termination of an employee, the town could be subject to litigation.
“It would not be a clean-cut thing, that employee would have substantial grievances,” he said.