|Legal Opinion: |
Text of Document: April 22, 1992
Your question is, what legal right do city employees have to continued employment under a newly-elected board of mayor and aldermen? The answer is not encouraging to either the officers or employees of the city.
I refer you to my two letters in early 1990 on the same question, and on the question related specifically to the recorder. I have omitted legal citations supporting my conclusions here because they generally appear in those letters, except for recent ones which I will be glad to provide on request.
The recorder and police chief are "officers" under Tennessee law; the fire chief is not. The terms of officers expire when the term of the present board expires, unless otherwise provided in the charter. Under Section 9 of the City Charter, the recorder and "other officers" have a definite term of one year. If the board of mayor and aldermen decides not to "reelect" the recorder or the police chief to a new term, they will not have been fired; their terms will have simply expired. The same is true of any other officers in the municipality. I suspect there are none, except for the members of the board of public utilities. They are a special case in only two respects: Under Section 22(5) of the charter, they are expressly removable only for cause; and their terms are longer than one year.
I find nothing in the charter that gives the city's "employees" any kind of job protection. One qualification needs to be mentioned: The employees of the public utilities board derive protection from the board of mayor and aldermen from the provision of Section 22(6) of the charter which gives the board of public utilities the power to hire its own employees. However, employees of the board of public utilities are also at-will employees, only of the board of public utilities. Otherwise, the city's employees appear to be at-will employees who can be dismissed with or without cause at the pleasure of the board of mayor and aldermen.
I have previously pointed out to you the case of Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois, 58 U.S.L.W. (June 19, 1990), in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that personnel decisions regarding public employees could not be made on the basis of political party affiliation or support. That case applies to partisan elections, but it is not certain whether it also applies to nonpartisan elections. There will have to be more litigation in that area before I can determine its application to the City, which, like virtually all Tennessee cities, holds nonpartisan elections.
Unless Rutan applies to the city's employees, the weight of the law is heavily against them in the event the board determines to do wholesale terminations. Recent state and federal courts have staunchly upheld the application of the at will doctrine against public employees.
If I can help you further in this or any other matter, please let me know.
Sidney D. Hemsley
Senior Law Consultant