Members of the Wellington Village Council were largely on board this week with village policies to boost employee morale, despite criticism that they might not serve a public purpose.
At a workshop Monday, council members reviewed points made in an audit of village purchasing cards by the Palm Beach County Office of the Inspector General.
Council members were tasked with discussing whether several unofficial village policies should be continued. Councilman John Greene was absent.
“Many of the recommended changes have been made,” Village Manager Paul Schofield said. “Now it comes down to matters of public policy.”
In April, Inspector General Sheryl Steckler released an audit that looked at 763 charges to Wellington purchasing cards (called p-cards) during the first 10 months of 2011.
Of the $174,970 spent, the Stecker’s staff raised concerns with $28,597 that had been used for purchases that they did not believe were for a public purpose.
Examples of those included meals at restaurants or meals purchased for meetings or staff training; items for an employee birthday lunch, an employee retirement party and a holiday party; snacks and coffee for village staff; and flowers or food sent to employees’ families who had lost a loved one.
“Right now, these practices have been suspended with the exception of water,” Village Attorney Jeff Kurtz said. “In the end, the audit found that those things were done legally. But this has come out of a concern that in [the inspector general’s] mind, some of the expenditures did not have a true public purpose.”
Kurtz said that among the concerns were six transactions where Wellington sent food or flowers to an employee’s family for sympathy due to a death.
“The question is what role, if any, does the council want to support with respect to if an employee or family member passes away,” he said. “There is no law against it. The question is whether it serves a public purpose. It falls under the category of employee morale, but there is not a lot of policy on that kind of thing.”
Councilman Matt Willhite said that he thought this issue, as well as those regarding retirements, birthdays and holidays, should be treated the same for every employee. “We can’t spend on one employee’s retirement, birthday or family member,” he said. “It’s either all or none.”
That said, Willhite supported sending a greeting card in all instances.
“For the past three or four years, I’ve received a card from human resources wishing me a happy birthday,” he said. “It was a feel-good thing that let me know someone knew when my birthday was, recognized it and appreciated me. I think getting a card is a nice thing. You just need to set those parameters and make sure it’s inclusive of every employee.”
Vice Mayor Howard Coates agreed that Wellington should spend on employee morale. “Anyone who has run a business knows that encouraging and developing employee loyalty is every bit as important as running the business,” he said.
Coates agreed that there should be parameters and equal treatment of employees. “Limits are fine,” he said. “But I am against eliminating these kinds of items because someone is questioning the public purpose.”
Councilwoman Anne Gerwig suggested setting a dollar amount, rather than governing what could be purchased.
“In the case of an employee dying, or a close family member dying, the family could say, ‘We really don’t need flowers, but we need food,’” she said. “I think this serves a public purpose. We get used to working with each other and care about each other.”
Additionally, she noted that residents haven’t been outspoken against any of the measures.
“If taxpayers want to tell us they don’t care, and if someone dies we shouldn’t spend a dime on it, they should tell us that,” she said. “But I don’t hear residents having a problem with this.”
Mayor Bob Margolis noted that after 26 years with Proctor & Gamble, he was given only a card and plaque at his retirement. “I was disappointed,” he said. “It left a bad taste in my mouth.”
He said he thought Wellington should be able to acknowledge its employees’ hard work with these kinds of expressions but cautioned that it needed to be equal under a set policy.
“One senior staff member got a gold watch when he retired,” Margolis said. “I think that’s a great idea. Let’s give it to every other employee who is retiring, too.”
Margolis noted that he was the person who initiated the audit. “It was a question of whether there was a policy,” he said. “I firmly believe there should be a policy recognizing our employee’s hard work, but to recognize one and not everyone else does a disservice to the other employees.”
Kurtz said he thought council members were largely in agreement that Wellington should draft a policy regarding these events.
But Willhite noted that he was not necessarily in favor of lunches, retirement parties or anything beyond a simple greeting card.
“I do have a problem with throwing employees retirement or birthday lunches when we have people complaining that they still have water in their front yard,” he said. “They’re going to say that we can’t spend on that, but we can spend on lunch for our employees. That’s what makes me nervous.”
Another concern was regarding meals provided to employees during business meetings. “There is no right or wrong from a legal or policy standard,” Kurtz told council members.
Most council members agreed that employee lunches could be paid for during training sessions or other occasions when it is not feasible for them to leave for lunch.
But Willhite wanted to be sure that employees weren’t taking lunch meetings solely to have lunch on the village’s dime. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to schedule meetings and provide lunch at that time,” he said.
But Schofield said that wasn’t usually the case.
“We don’t schedule a meeting at 11 a.m. and say we’ll work through lunch,” he said. “It’s usually that a project has to get done, so the employees come in early and stay until it gets done. Those times, we will provide lunch.”
Kurtz noted that the council must also decide whether an employee’s lunch should be paid for if he or she meets with another agency for a lunch meeting.
Schofield said that he often schedules lunch meetings — even with council members — because it is the best time for all involved. “It’s usually the most convenient time to meet with other agencies,” he said.
Margolis said he’d like to find a middle ground between banning the practice completely and being irresponsible. “When this audit came out, we went to a zero-tolerance policy,” he said. “What the council has to do is find where the middle of the road is.”
Schofield suggested that council members let staff draft some potential policies based on the discussion and return for another meeting to discuss them.
“I have certainly got some direction out of this meeting,” he said. “Maybe now is not the time to make a final decision.”
Council members agreed and directed Schofield and his staff to draft a policy proposal.