The city of St. James has been on a spending spree in recent years. The town has spent millions on an electrical system expansion, sewer improvements, a new pool, a new city hall building, and renovation of the current city hall to turn it into a police station. The city even recently hired its first-ever city manager to the tune of nearly $64,000 a year. Now, city officials have eliminated a position held by the same man for 32 years in an alleged effort to save money. Are you buying that? And more importantly, will a jury buy it?
Yes, a jury will probably have the final say on the city’s first move in years to save money because the position recently eliminated was held by Jim House, who has been legally blind since birth and was the city’s only handicapped employee. If any group has ever set themselves up to be sued better than the city just did, you’d be hard pressed to find it.
Despite being legally blind, House satisfactorily performed his duties for the city for more than three decades. Not once in that time was he ever cited for poor job performance. Despite that fact, the decision was made to eliminate his job and contract out his custodial services, while allowing several other janitors to remain on the city payroll. Somehow, that just doesn’t add up.
If the city is looking to save money, why not contract out all the janitorial services? Why not let some more employees go and bid out their jobs? And, why not let someone go who has worked for the city far less than House’s 32 years?
According to House, Mayor Dennis Wilson has been trying to get rid of him since 2008. House even says the mayor approached two of his friends and asked them to convince him that the time had come for him to retire due to his “blindness and the mayor’s concern for the city’s liability” if he continued to work. House also says that Wilson and City Manager Jeff Davis suggested he apply for disability due to his blindness. The trouble is, House doesn’t want to retire or go on disability. He wants to continue working.
In April, the city council held a closed session to discuss getting rid of House. House says he was told that during that meeting the council discussed “the mayor’s concern of liability” for continuing his employment due to his blindness. If that’s what was discussed, then that meeting was a violation of the Missouri Sunshine Law.
In fact, if the council met to discuss eliminating House’s job as an effort to save money—as they claim to have done—that was also an illegal discussion. The Missouri Sunshine law is very clear about what can be discussed in closed meetings. For personnel, it is the “hiring, firing, disciplining or promoting” of employees. Eliminating someone’s job in an effort to save money is none of those things and any discussion about that should have been held in public, where city residents could hear the discussion and have an opportunity to speak out about it.
The city council’s closed session meeting with House on June 21, which SJP Staff Writer Chris Daniels tried to attend, was also illegal. By June 21, Davis said the decision had already been made to eliminate House’s job. He even said, “The vote (at that closed meeting) was for eliminating (House’s) position. The council affirmed that and we would contract out for that. I presented my case on the decision and the council affirmed it six to one.”
That meeting was officially closed to discuss personnel matters (as was the April meeting). Discussing the elimination of a job and voting to approve that decision cannot be done in closed session! That is not “hiring, firing, disciplining or promoting” an employee. Eliminating House’s job amounted to a fiscal decision, a budget decision, and it should have been done during an open meeting.
When the council was discussing adding the job of city manager, all those discussions were held in open session. When they talk about eliminating jobs, those discussions must also be held in public. Taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent and they have the right to speak out about it during an open meeting of the council.
If the city were truly acting to eliminate a position in an effort to save money, why wouldn’t they hold that discussion in front of the public? It could be just as House claims—that this was more about his disability and less about saving a few thousand dollars a year.
Are you buying that? And more importantly, will a jury buy it?