WINCHESTER — City Council has made it clear that it has no intention of investigating City Manager Eden Freeman’s handling of Winchester Fire and Rescue Chief William A. Garrett.
“I, and I think I can speak for the entire council, have complete faith in Eden Freeman,” council Vice President Evan Clark said near the end of Tuesday night’s council work session.
Clark’s statement, which he said was directed to the media and a group of firefighters in attendance, was made before The Winchester Star’s report, printed in Wednesday’s edition, that quoted multiple sources challenging Freeman’s claim that no disciplinary action had been taken against Garrett.
The chief, who was sworn in on June 3, was out of office Nov. 22-26 for reasons that have never been publicly explained. Numerous sources have told The Star that Garrett, who has declined to comment on the issue, was temporarily relieved of duty following his opposition to a proposed Paid Time Off (PTO) policy that overlooked the extra hours worked by city firefighters and paramedics. Freeman said Garrett was not relieved of duty and that he was out of the office Nov. 26 for a pre-planned day off. She offered no explanation for his absence on the other days.
Members of the Winchester Fire and Rescue Department have rallied to support Garrett, appearing en masse at all subsequent council meetings and demanding that councilors conduct an investigation into Freeman’s actions.
Councilor Les Veach said in November that he supported an investigation, but discussion of the matter had not been included in any of council’s meeting agendas until Tuesday night, when Veach was on vacation and out of town.
According to city policies, council’s meeting agendas are prepared by Freeman and Winchester Mayor David Smith, who also serves as council president.
The issues discussed on Tuesday that appear to be tied to the Freeman/Garrett situation were both presented by City Attorney Melisa G. Michelson. The first asked if council wanted to create a policy that allows it to investigate complaints filed against the city manager and city attorney — Winchester’s only two employees hired by City Council — and the second asked if any department head under the city manager’s supervision should be allowed to appeal a disciplinary action or termination to council.
In both cases, City Council answered with a resounding no.
“I struggle with us being an investigative body,” Councilor Judy McKiernan said, noting that independent agencies like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would be more suited to looking into grievances regarding the city manager and city attorney.
Councilors plan to continue discussing the procedures for filing complaints at a future meeting, but said they currently favor adopting a written policy advising people how to seek help elsewhere if they have a grievance with the city manager or city attorney.
As for the ability of department heads to appeal disciplinary actions to City Council, it appears council does not want to get involved. On Tuesday, councilors said they want to stick with Winchester’s current policy of giving the city manager full authority over department heads.
Currently, City Code allows Winchester’s police chief to appeal disciplinary actions to City Council, but that protection is not given to any other department head. Garrett’s supporters have asked for the fire chief to have the same avenue of appeal, but councilors on Tuesday said they would prefer to take away the police chief’s appeal option rather than granting the same power to any other city employee, including Garrett.
The issue has not been decided. Councilor John Willingham asked Michelson to present council with options for a revised appeal policy at a future meeting.
Garrett, who did not attend Tuesday’s work session, is nearing the end of a nine-month probationary period. When his probation expires on March 3, he can be terminated without cause by the city manager.
Freeman, who has been Winchester’s city manager since July 21, 2014, will be leaving the city on March 16 to start a new job as deputy city manager for Greenville, South Carolina. She has denied that calls for an investigation were a factor in her decision to resign.
“I will support Eden until her final day here,” Councilor Corey Sullivan said on Tuesday.
Attending Tuesday night’s City Council work session at Rouss City Hall were Mayor and council President David Smith, Vice Mayor John Hill, Vice President Evan Clark and councilors John Willingham, Kim Herbstritt, Judy McKiernan, Bill Wiley and Corey Sullivan. Councilor Les Veach was absent.