A Baton Rouge Metro Councilwoman warned her colleagues Wednesday that refusing to scrap rules that allow retirees to return to work part-time while drawing retirement benefits results in a lack of fresh ideas at City Hall.
The proposal by Metro Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis would have stopped retired city-parish workers from returning to full-time jobs while getting paid for 29 hours of work a week and collecting their retirement benefits. Had Collins-Lewis’s ordinance been successful, it would have led to departures of some of the city-parish’s most well-known staffers and important members of Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome’s cabinet. Broome opposed the measure.
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Employees who retired in the past and have returned to work under “retire/rehire” include Transportation and Roads Director Fred Raiford; Finance Director Marsha Hanlon; Development District Executive Director Davis Rhorer; Parish Attorney Lea Anne Batson; Public Information Officer Dennis McCain; Retirement Administrator Jeffrey Yates; Information Services Programming Supervisor Patrick Guidry and more.
Many said they work more than 29 hours a week, despite their part-time pay. If an employee returns to work full-time, he or she has to forfeit retirement benefits.
Collins-Lewis said Wednesday her proposal to eliminate city-parish retire/rehire rules was not personal toward any of the employees. But she argued that the city-parish will never attract young blood when retired employees can keep returning to work and blocking them from climbing to the top of a department.
Collins-Lewis also said it’s unfair that the city-parish does not have a uniform rule to determine when employees are allowed to return to work and which positions they should fill. She said it opens the city-parish up to disputes from retirees who have been denied a request to return to work.
“It’s wrong," Collins-Lewis said. "I don’t care how you look at it, it’s wrong. Keep on doing what we’re doing and we’re going to get the same results.”
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But Collins-Lewis found little support for her ordinance on the council, and the Broome administration also opposed it.
Several council members expressed concerns that it would stifle the mayor’s office from appointing whomever they want to their cabinet positions.
Councilwoman Tara Wicker described the retire/rehire policy as “a management issue,” rather than one the Metro Council should regulate. She said department heads and the mayor’s office should issue a directive about planning for retirements and training less experienced employees so they are ready to step in and fill leadership positions in the future.
Councilwoman Barbara Freiberg said the Metro Council should not overly restrict the mayor’s office, while Councilman Matt Watson noted that all of the employees who have come back to work have no protections that prevent them from being fired.
While most government employees enjoy civil service protections, Baton Rouge department heads who have returned under retire/rehire serve at the pleasure of the mayor’s office, council or their appointing body.
If City Hall wants to make room for an up-and-coming employee, Watson said the administration or council who appointed their superior could fire the superior on the spot. The DDD also stood by its use of retire/rehire, saying Rhorer should be exempt from the proposal because the DDD board appoints him, not the mayor’s office or Metro Council.
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“Davis Rhorer, the executive director, has been effectively leading the DDD for 30 years and he wants to continue to do this,” said Ric Kearny, the DDD board chairman, who urged council members to vote against the ordinance.
Councilwoman Chauna Banks defended the proposed ordinance. She asked why council members were concerned about job security for some employees but not others, given that the Metro Council recently voted to gut the Office of Community Development. And Banks accused the retirees who have returned of being greedy.
Seven council members voted to delete the ordinance: Freiberg, Watson, Trae Welch, Scott Wilson, Buddy Amoroso, Dwight Hudson and Chandler Loupe. Collins-Lewis and Erika Green voted against the deletion. Wicker abstained, Banks did not vote and LaMont Cole was absent.
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Collins-Lewis was still thinking about the ordinance after the debate ended and the council moved on.
“I know that this is probably out of order,” she said later in the meeting, “but I am going to bring it back again, the ordinance. I am going to keep bringing it back.”