One month before 31 city employees are set to lose their jobs, Macon City Council members are moving to block the layoffs and reinject the council into decisions on any layoffs or furloughs.
The issue seemed settled in August, when the council voted 9-6 against a change in the city’s rules on reductions in force. Proponents said the change would have cleared up a vagueness in the existing rules, making sure a council vote would be needed before any layoffs or furloughs could take effect.
There wasn’t enough support for the legislation, and Mayor Robert Reichert has maintained all along that he has the power to lay off employees without the council. He plans to do so Jan. 15 in an effort to “right size” city government and rebuild the city’s fiscal reserves.
But tonight, the council is expected to resend the legislation to a council committee, re-opening the debate and setting up a reversal that could force the mayor and council into court if the two sides can’t come to an agreement.
Councilman Rick Hutto, the measure’s most vocal supporter, said he thinks the votes will be there this time. He said some council members think the mayor didn’t give them the input he promised before pushing ahead with layoffs and the elimination of other vacant jobs. Plus, Hutto said, “the second wave of firings are on the way,” and that’s galvanizing council opinion behind the change.
Reichert disputed that, saying “there has been no discussion on this side of the hall regarding a second wave of layoffs.”
The mayor has said in the past that more job losses are possible as his administration continues to review and tweak the work force. But Monday evening he said that “the only possible” reason Hutto would feel more firings are imminent is the fact that talks are ongoing to combine city and county services.
There may be job cuts as services are combined, “but we’re so far away from that, we don’t have any individual plans for that,” the mayor said.
Hutto stressed that he’s not against right sizing. In fact, he said it’s needed. But he said it needs to be done with council approval. He has repeatedly criticized fellow council members who voted against his legislation in August, saying they abdicated their responsibility in the matter.
“I’m not trying to stop the process,” Hutto said Monday. “What I’m trying to do is to assert that no mayor can do this on his own.”
Hutto was joined in that effort Monday by Councilman Virgil Watkins, who said he has “a lot of questions” about some of the positions Reichert’s plan would eliminate. Watkins said he was particularly concerned about jobs being eliminated in the fire department and questioned whether some of them were “vital.”
Hutto, an attorney with extensive knowledge of council procedures, and City Attorney Pope Langstaff engaged in some back and forth Monday over the proper way to proceed on this matter. In the end, it was generally agreed that no final action would be taken during tonight’s regular council meeting at City Hall.
Instead, Hutto’s legislation, which was co-sponsored by Appropriations Committee Chairman Mike Cranford, simply will be sent to a committee for new discussion. That means it would have to come back to the council for any final vote.
That’s particularly noteworthy because the council will be short several members tonight, which could have shifted the vote radically. Five members, four of whom voted with the mayor when this came up in August, are on a sister city trip to Macon, France, this week. Councilman Erick Erickson, who also voted with the mayor, is out of town on a separate trip, meaning only nine of 15 council members are expected at tonight’s meeting.
In another development on this matter Monday, Councilwoman Elaine Lucas, with the backing of other members, asked the city attorney to seek an opinion on the whole matter from the Georgia Attorney General’s Office.