The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

September 24, 2013

State law keeping fired DPS officials on payroll may need another look

Globe Gazette
Sept. 17

---- — What’s that? You can get fired but appeal your firing and keep getting paid for months?

That’s how it works in Iowa if you’re a Department of Public Safety supervisor who gets terminated.

We’re not sure why it got passed or how often it’s been used, but it’s a law taxpayers might want their legislators to look at. And if nothing else, kindly suggest to them that procedure be changed to speed things up one way or the other.

It came to light when The Associated Press reported that state law requires that the DPS continue paying supervisors while they appeal their firing administratively, which can take a year or longer.

The DPS has been making headlines lately because, among other things, former Department of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Larry Hedlund, fired during the dust-up over Gov. Terry Branstad’s speeding SUV driven by a state trooper, is one of those still being paid pending his appeal. His annual salary: $96,500.

Hedlund was fired for alleged conduct problems, but is claiming it was solely over the Branstad situation.

Some lawmakers are urging that the 25-year veteran, with no previous discipline problems, be reinstated, and Hedlund said that would be just fine with him — that he’d rather be working “than sitting here trying to re-establish” credibility.

He’s not the only one in such a situation. An Iowa State Patrol sergeant, Kevin Knebel, was fired in June and has been receiving his annual $83,500 salary during his appeal process.

(Both he and Hedlund both say their pay was initially cut off then reinstated, so maybe there’s more than a few state officials unaware of the law.)

A third employee collected nearly $90,000 during an unsuccessful 14-month appeal that ended in 2010, The AP reported.

This law, passed in 1988, applies only to supervisors. Troopers and agents lose their pay immediately but have union representation and can appeal through arbitration.

For supervisors, an administrative law judge holds a hearing and issues a decision, a process that usually takes about a month.

Employees can appeal that ruling to a three-member Employment Appeal Board. All the while, the salary continues; if the board upholds the firing, no more pay. Apparently, those sorts of decisions take quite some time; or maybe it’s the appeals situation; or both.

We can see where the law would offer some protection to a supervisor who might have a personality clash and get the boot, even though he’s doing an acceptable job in others’ eyes. There’s also the possibility of differing on rules interpretations. There are many twists and turns in a department like the DPS that most of us can’t begin to know. And certainly we don’t know all the legalese.

But we do know that a 14-month appeal process seems like a long time.

The thing is, we want the process to be fair to everyone, including the taxpayer.

If the worker deserves to be fired, so be it. If not, get him or her back on the job so the public is getting its money’s worth.

Rules and laws may be complicated, but that seems like a pretty straightforward solution. Another might be to give the fired worker back pay if it’s determined the firing was unjust and he or she is reinstated.

Those are things we think legislators ought to take a look at when they come back in January.