Commish Spins AT WILL Job Ordinance

Guest commentary by:
SHARON ULLMAN, former Ada Commish

Ada County Commish Fred Tilman can offer more “spin” than a Yo-Yo when it comes to talking about what he did or didn’t do to county employees’ job status.

Recently on NewsRadio 580 KIDO, Tilman talked about the County’s new at-will employment policy:

“I think a lot of people have a misconception. The ordinance that we passed simply gave people notice. It did not put anything into effect. It simply gave all the employees notice of the fact that we were moving to a new system, personnel system.”

The ordinance, unanimously passed by the commissioners on December 27 actually says:

“Effective March 1, 2007, a new Chapter 7 is hereby enacted implementing an at-will system of personnel administration. On the same date, handbooks providing the human resource policies and procedures of Ada County will be adopted by resolution of the Board of Ada County Commissioners.”

In the ordinance, the commissioners also clarified,

“At-will employees serve at the will and pleasure of their supervising elected officials. Their employment may be terminated at any time, with or without cause.”

That’s pretty clear. The deed has been done, but it does not become effective until March 1 (or when the employee handbook is completed). For Tilman to claim that, “It (the newly passed ordinance) did not put anything into effect” is pretty slippery and rivals the landfill methane gas when it comes to the “smell test.”

On AM580 KIDO Radio, Tilman continued:

“The reason we have to do that is the one (the personnel system) we’re presently operating under was ruled unconstitutional by the Idaho Supreme Court, so we have to make the change.”

It WAS necessary for the County’s old personnel system to be changed to correct legal problems. It was NOT necessary to change the status of all employees to “at will” in order to do so. The simpler fix would have been to allow all employment terminations to be appealed to the Board of Ada County Commissioners for review. That’s it.

The commishes claim the new ordinance will save taxpayers money. Probably not. A capable employee wouldn’t work for Ada County if they could make more money working in the private sector, or have more rights (and security) working for Boise City or the State of Idaho.

Taxpayers will lose in the long run. The current annual County budget for salaries and benefits exceeds $93 million. Recruiting, hiring and training employees costs money, and service suffers when turnover is high. Ada County will become, even more than it is now, a training ground for other public agencies. It costs about $50,000 to replace a Sheriff’s deputy.
Money aside, the scariest aspect of the new at-will system is that because an employee can be fired “without cause”, the County will be able to fire employees for any reason at all, including:

• political party affiliation or loyalty
• involvement in community issues
• reputation

With a classified employment system, well-qualified, hard-working employees felt reasonably secure about continued employment. The at-will personnel system, is wide open to witch hunts and oldtime political patronage and probably labor unions—even if the county won’t recognize the union.

Comments & Discussion

Comments are closed for this post.

  1. Thank you for this post! I am a county peon who works hard everyday only to see our leadership cut our protections for our underpaid service. As a person with thousands of dollars in student loans I appreciate this post.

    I chose the public sector so that I could work to make a difference despite poor pay. When county officials make the decisions they do to criticize us employees even indirectly it makes me doubt my decision to go into public service. Public service is not about bottom line thinking. My coworkers and I work daily under stressful circumstances most in the public sector cannot understand for relatively poor compensation. I’m glad to see someone stand up to our rights even if our leaders continue to fail us.

  2. I was offered at job with the county a few years ago. This new policy makes me especially glad I didn’t take it.

    Of course, I worked in the private sector which always had the at will policy and I saw many people lose their jobs. At the private level, however, it was usually because of changes in the economy, not personality differences.

    I agree with Sharon, that the lack of job security could make it harder for the county to keep good employees. That might prove to be a bad move. I really don’t understand the reason for the change.

  3. Let us be kind to Mr. Tillman and not say he is lying to us as it may appear, but let us assume that he is probably not smart enought to know the difference.

  4. Thanks for the post, Sharon. I’m wondering, what aspect of the former system was unconstitutional?

    I found your reference to unions off base though, grouping employee organization with witch hunts etc. I think unions are usually a good thing for the workplace and certainly contribute to job security and stability. Unions have historically been formed in response to unfair practices by the employer, so this would be no exception. It would be ironic though, if this action by the Commissioners results in the creation of a new union in this right-wing, right-to work (for less) state.

    Reasonable job security should be enjoyed by all employees, public and private. I think most people believe it’s fair to be shown just cause when being terminated from a job. I hope the Sheriff’s Dept. does organize, whether it is initially recognized by the County or not. It would be good for their members and give moral support to other employees. Any policy can be changed, and that’s what the County employees need to work towards through organizing.

    EDITOR NOTE–Sharon was saying “at will” INVITES witch hunts (which can encourage) labor unions…you are both on the same page.

  5. Idagreen – The County’s old personnel ordinance only provided for a fired employee to appeal the termination decision to a hearing officer and then that decision could (supposedly) be appealed to District Court.

    The problem is that a hearing officer does not have sufficient legal standing for their decisions to be challenged in court. The County Commission does. Therefore, by simply adding a step to the appeals process, allowing the decision of the hearing officer to be appealed to the Commission and THEN to court, would have solved the problem. Alternately, doing away with the appeal to a hearing officer and replacing it with an appeal directly to the Commission would have worked, as well.

  6. Clippityclop
    Jan 13, 2007, 1:16 pm

    Excellent post, Sharon. Unfortunately, I’ve witnessed this type of spin many times before from Commissioner Tilman on other issues and I’ve come to believe that it’s not just spin — he truly doesn’t get it. I think that worries me more than just the ability to spin.

    What affect will this “at will” status have on the critically important role of the whistleblower or even the employee who questions the status quo for the betterment of the entire organization and community? I worry that such a policy will stiffle important questioning that ultimately makes an operation better and more creative. There’s a huge risk here of creating a workforce of underlyingly anxious yes-men zombies when what you really want to foster are devoted public servants like Thank You! who work in the public sector because of the calling to make things better for their community.

    I have the sad, sad feeling the Commishes passed this exactly for it’s stiffling effect. Smart managers WANT their employees to have different points of view, raise questions and be unafraid to challenge decisions which, when reconsidered, may need to be changed. Empires don’t work and can’t adapt.

  7. BrianTheDog
    Jan 13, 2007, 1:21 pm

    The state retirement system is the same whether your employed by Ada County or Boise City. I suggest leaving Ada County and going to work for Boise City.

    Congrats on the raise deputies recently recieved, however, don’t hold your breath for another raise within the next 10 years. I noticed Sheriff Raney spoke out against the “at will” status and should be applaued, but I bet he is the first one to use it.

  8. Well, sort of. I’m guessing Sharon sees union organizing as a negative result of the policy, I would see it as a positive. Don’t mean to put words in Sharon’s mouth though, just guessing from a philosophical point of view she would just as soon not see organized labor get a foothold in the County. I could be wrong, it’s certainly happened before.

    Perhaps Sharon will elaborate?

  9. Clippityclop – Thanks!

    Ada County employees WILL still have all state and federal protections, such as Idaho’s “whistleblower” statutes, Title 6, Chapter 21. There are federal whistleblower protection laws, as well. But, many Ada County employees were already rightfully fearful, and now it’s even worse.

    Idagreen – I think employees should be treated fairly and with respect from the start. I don’t think public employees should be fired without cause, unless they are high-level political appointees. I also believe that everyone should work as a team, rather than as “management” versus “employees” as often seems to be the case in a union shop. When employees are not treated fairly, as with this sudden new at-will policy, they will understandably consider unionizing.

  10. Collective bargaining in the public sector is rarely a good thing for taxpayers.

  11. I’m upset by Comm. Tilman’s ( Derr’s)arrogance and spin on his ” at-will” personnel policy and I urge every county employee and gov. employees on all levels of local gov. to get the best job representation possible. I warn you… your political bosses are going to tear a page from F. Tilman’s handbbook ” How to use People.” The BPD has demonstrated that a strong, effective, union is one of the best ways to safeguard their employees. Another way is for a group of County employee’s to get together and hire a lawyer to represent all their employment rights and or to challenge “Tilman’s farce” right now in court.

    Commish Tilman is forgeting that he is an employee of the People and county employees are not his employees but the People’s. I urge every voter to call (PH 208-287-7000) your County Commission or e-mail them ( and let them all know how you feel about their new pathetic personnel policy and tell them you’ll be taking that to the voting booth. I urge all government employee’s on all levels.. start looking at Unionization, legal help and anything else to assist yourself and the People you work for have a healthy well-oiled and responsible work environment. Happy employees are the most productive. Maybe you’ll start a join a Union trend in work-harder for less Idaho!

    EDITOR NOTE–Unions can be recognized only with approval of the commishes.

  12. Once again we are listening to an individual that no one voted for. Ok, maybe her family and friends, but honestly, half of you bitch and moan when the county is not run like a business. Then the other half bitch when it is.

    I am a business owner and have found that when you don’t have “at will” employees you get great employees, but you also get poor employees. Take the school system for example. If a teacher stays on long enough, no matter how good they are or are not, cannot be terminated unless God himself takes em’ out. The same is true for the county. There are many great employees working for them, but what about the bad one? Why should they get the raises and bonuses like everyone else? Why should they be allowed to keep on working if they are not working as hard as the others?

    I also have a hard time believing Thankyou when they say that public service is not about bottom line thinking. It better well be because it is my money they are spending. I didn’t vote for the county commissioners so they could be nice to all the county employees, I can do that on my own, I elected them to make decisions and spend money wisely. I have always said that government should be run like a business, and in this case they have done just that. Hats off to them Sharon!

  13. Wow, what great feedback.

    First of all, Tam – you have no idea what you are talking about. How do I know that? Because there just isn’t any data presented to back your statement up. On top of that, there are no examples of this in Idaho to back you up, either.

    Sharon, I think your post was great. There was a recent Supreme Court Decision about whistleblowing that gives employers a way to punish whistleblowers. Very sad indeed.

    This move, as I have said before, is a complete slap in the face to ADA employees. I really do hope employees there look to organizing as a way to work for change.

  14. I agree with Morgan’s assessment of Tillman’s arrogance. From “demanding respect” (which, last time I checked, is earned) to spinning the issue on the radio, he clearly has no “respect” for the people he is supposed to serve (not the other way around, Tillman!) I recently faxed a letter and wrote an e-mail to him without response. I called to verify the receipt of same and received no call back. My guess is that he cares very little about us “joe citizen”. King Tillman is in a class of his own.

  15. For me there is an elephant in the room (slight pun intended)regarding the change of status. Perhaps some of you more knowledgeable folks can help to enlighten me on how this is supposed to operate. As I read in these posts and in the paper this morning there is a change in status that is supposed to take place this spring. Is this automatic with the publication of the new employee handbook? A County employee informs me that the personnel department will circulate a form to all employees accepting the change in status. Is this true?

    My understanding is the at will status can’t be changed except by agreement of the contracting parties, it cannot be done unilaterally once there is an employment relationship already in place. I guess if I was asked to sign such a document I would be disinclined to do so without the disclaimer that I don’t accept the change in status. Doing so could not be cause to fire you. At least I wouldn’t want to make that argument to the judge. I haven’t researched so this is just a gut reaction but for existing County employees this might be a legal opinion worth pursuing.

    If you didn’t accept the change in status and were later dismissed I would think you would at least have an argument that the unilateral change in status didn’t apply to you. Certainly if enough employees did this together it would put the Commisioners in a tough spot. Any thoughts?

  16. Try a Little Courtesy
    Jan 16, 2007, 4:09 pm

    The Guardian’s last post of 2006 contained the following statement.

    “Based on the anonymous e-mails we get and the number of commenters who don’t use their real names, we can only conclude most people are afraid to speak openly for fear of retaliation from employers, loved ones, or the government.”

    It is my observation that the practice of people using fake names to attack the character, rather than the ideas, of people who use their real names (Did I say Snoop?), with The Guardian’s blessing, tends to discourage the use of real names.

    Enforcing a consistent, minimal amount of courtesy in posted responses might encourage more people to write, and to use their own names.

    EDITOR NOTE–It is a fine line between censoring comments and enforcing civil discourse. We honestly try, but sometimes fail, no doubt.

  17. Since this piece has to do with jobs, thought I’d use it to expand the scope — in this case to reference the Associated Press story in a Boise daily newspaper about the big pay cut the Guv got his administrative assistant to take to come back to Idaho from Washington, D.C. A little more investigation would actually have found that the magnanimous $33,000 reduction in salary Jeff Melman was willing to make wasn’t exactly that magnanimous. According to the cost of living calculator on the internet at, someone making $153,000 annually in the Washington, D.C./Alexandria, VA area (his old salary) would receive comparable compensation in Boise for a salary of $106,560 annually. In other words, Jeff didn’t take a $33,000 reduction in what he has to spend to get by, he actually received a $13,440 increase. (His $120,000 in Boise would equal a salary of $172,296 in his old spot). Getting Jeff to come back to his previous job in the Statehouse must have been a pretty hard sell for Butch.

    EDITOR NOTE–Thanks for the update. Good reporting. The GURADIAN is curredntly in Brazil checking out in-fill and growthophobia issues. Any stories from readers are welcome.

  18. I wonder if the electorate will ever come to realize that the individual to be concerned with, and in fact feared, is the Administrative Assistant (AA), not the elected office. The AA wields much more power in a congressional,senatorial, or gubernatorial situation than does the officeholder. It is the AA who TELLS the officeholder what his/her position is on a given issue. They also control access to the officeholder. They are not excluded from the use of the “back room” deals that could kill the elected official. No elections, no accountability, no “answering to the voters”. This hired gun is the one we really need to watch.

  19. Huh! Guess this blog has died. Rats. I really liked it.

  20. No, I have been gone too so I will end it.

    Why do we keep electing these idiots?

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