In any employment situation that isn’t spelled out clearly another way must be found to resolve an issue. At times whatever the “past practice” has been is used to make a decision. But when a policy manual or collective bargaining agreement contains language that can only be interpreted to mean one thing, there is no amount of past practice that should ever be considered to change those terms. More importantly, just because something has been done in the past doesn’t necessarily mean it was the proper thing to do to begin with.
Last month a request was made by the retiring Town of Lewiston Police Chief to be paid for over one thousand hours of accrued vacation and unused sick time. By all accounts Chris Salada was good man, a well-respected police officer, and an excellent Chief of Police. I can see why he felt that his request was both reasonable and fair in light of the fact that the Town Board had recently done the same thing for another employee.
Current Town Clerk Donna Garfinkel chose to leave her hourly position to accept the Town Board’s appointment to the position she now holds. After winning a special election she requested over twenty-six thousand dollars in payment for the unused time she too had accumulated. During the Town Board’s deliberation Councilman Ron Winkley spoke out on her behalf and by saying it had been a “past practice” so the payment was unanimously approved.
I don’t blame Mrs. Garfinkel for accepting the Town Board’s generosity. I think almost anyone who found themselves in that situation would have done the very same thing. What troubles me is that no one bothered to look to see if there were any policy rules that covered such a situation. The only information presented to the board was that it had been done for someone else in the past so it was the proper thing to do now. So when Chief Salada decided to leave his positon it was only logical of him to ask that he be paid for his accrued time too.
But in Salada’s case, the Town Board noticed that the town’s employee policy manual actually limited those benefits to a total of four thousand dollars. So his request was referred to an executive session, and no further action was taken on the matter. I have no idea why an executive session was even necessary, but for all intents his request was denied.
There is a time when past practice should have some bearing on an important decision. But to automatically do whatever has been done in the past makes no sense at all to me. I am sure anyone who lives in Lewiston knows that there were a lot of things that were done in the past that should never be done again. They also realize that by blindly following whatever others have done you can easily repeat the same mistakes over and over.
So I have some advice for elected officials in Lewiston and everywhere else. If anyone offers “past practice” as a reason to make a decision on a matter, before any vote is taken your first question should be “Is this situation spelled out anywhere in our written policies or a collective bargaining agreement?”
If the answer is yes those policies and terms should be followed, and only if the answer is no you should you let common sense and a past practice guide your decision.