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EXCLUSIVE: City manager’s office stripped grievance panel’s authority amid police hiring controversy

The Franklin P. Backus Courthouse in Alexandria (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

For the last year, Alexandria Police Department Capt. Monica Lisle has been embroiled in a promotion controversy. 

Lisle, who is a white, gay woman, says that the hiring process for the open assistant police chief position was faulty from the start. After going through the city’s administrative procedures to contest her disqualification from promotion, a grievance panel determined that she’d been harmed in the hiring process and ordered her promotion.

Just as a grievance panel found she had been discriminated against in the promotional process, the city government changed its regulations to block the same panel from ordering the city manager to promote her, ALXnow found.

Lisle sued the city government and her case is now before the Circuit Court. Her case, and an investigation into the city’s promotional process, calls into question how the city picks officers to lead the police department, which has separately been accused of skipping over employees of color for promotions.

The city says that Lisle’s case is simpler than it seems. Last week, City Attorney Rob Porter told Circuit Court Judge Katie Uston that her decision boils down to whether a city grievance panel has the authority to force the city manager to promote an employee.

The three-person grievance panel — a deputy director of planning, construction and facilities, an APD lieutenant and a staffer with the Department of Planning and Zoning — unanimously found that Lisle was discriminated against in a deeply flawed promotional process.

In the summer of 2022, Lisle applied to be assistant police chief. Her efforts were “quickly undermined by a series of violations of City policy, violations of law, and violations of past practice that form the basis of unwritten policy,” according to the grievance panel’s findings.

Easton McDonald was eventually hired as assistant police chief in January. There are still two open assistant police chief positions, and whether Lisle is promoted to one of the open positions now lies with Uston.

The city contends that the grievance panel’s decision to promote Lisle “flouts the City’s organizational structure set out on its Charter and the law and policies governing the City’s grievance process,” according to court records.

“If enforced, the decision would install her as an Assistant Police Chief, overseeing a third of Alexandria’s Police Department and reporting directly to the Chief of Police, although neither the Chief nor the City Manager chose her for the job,” Porter wrote in a memo in opposition to Lisle’s petition.

But that process was changed by the city manager’s office while the panel was deciding on Lisle’s case. The grievance panel hearing was conducted on June 24, and on July 3 the grievance panel unanimously recommended that City Manager Jim Parajon promote her.

On July 1, however, two days before the grievance panel’s decision, the city’s administrative regulations on the subject changed. The city manager’s office says the change coincided with the city’s collective bargaining agreements with the police and fire departments.

“The City was (and remains) in the process of updating the Administrative Regulations (A.R.) with the aim of publishing them on July 1st to coincide with our two (Fire and Police) collective bargaining agreements taking effect,” Ebony Fleming, the city’s director of communications and public information, told ALXnow in an email. “We updated the language of the referenced A.R. to make clear the city is required to comply with the long-standing state law charter section that the city manager has the exclusive authority to appoint and remove any City employee.”

The old A.R. policy, enacted by City Manager Vola Lawson in 1991, stated that a city employee can eventually file an appeal by sending the city manager a letter and having an informal hearing with the manager serving as the administrative hearing officer.

Under the old policy:

When the grievant shows a failure by the City to follow policies or procedures, the grievant may be entitled to relief if he/she also shows, by a preponderance of the evidence, that he/she suffered harm as a direct result of the failure. In such a case, the panel may order such relief as it deems necessary to remedy the harm shown to have affected the grievant.

If the panel determines that the employee has not shown that he/she has been harmed as a direct result of the failure to follow policies or procedures, it may nonetheless inform the City Manager of the failure and recommend that steps be taken to ensure that the failure is not repeated.

The updated policy takes the city manager out of the equation, stating that the appeal will be heard by a department head and a representative from the city’s department of human resources. If, by that point, the issue is not resolved, city regulations now state that the grievant can contact the Supreme Court of Virginia to request the appointment of an administrative hearing officer.

The amended A.R. policy also removes the three-person grievance panel altogether.

The previous policy said that:

When the grievant shows a failure by the City to follow policies or procedures, the grievant may be entitled to relief if he/she shows by a preponderance of the evidence that he/she suffered harm as a direct result of the failure. In such a case, the panel may order such relief as it deems necessary to remedy the harm shown to have affected the grievant.

The new policy states that the decision of the administrative hearing officer shall be “final and binding,” and includes the following new language:

Upon a determination that the grievant is entitled to relief, the Hearing Officer may award such relief as he/she deems necessary to remedy the harm shown to have affected the grievant, provided that such relief shall be narrowly tailored to address only the specific grievance and harm proven.

Hearing officers have no authority to award punitive damages or to promote, assign, or transfer a grievant. Awards of relief shall not detract from, alter, amend, or modify in any way any written City or department policy or procedure.

This change in administrative regulations affects all city employees, who are now unable to file a grievance regarding the hiring process, no matter how faulty. Additionally, APD captains are not subject to the collective bargaining agreement due to their high rank, and, like Lisle, they must adhere to city policies.

The policy still states that failure to promote a city employee is a “non-grievable” offense, “except where the employee can show that established promotional policies or procedures were not followed or applied fairly.”

On July 6, Parajon wrote a letter to the chair of the grievance panel asking for a “modified decision” and said that the recommendation goes against the city’s administrative regulations.

“As you are aware, the panel award must be consistent with all laws and ordinances,” Parajon wrote. “In its July 3, 2023 decision, the panel awarded Cpt. Lisle a promotion to Assistant Chief. This award conflicts with the City’s administrative regulation on sworn promotions, which authorizes only the City Manager or a designee to make sworn promotion appointments.”

The grievance panel responded to Parajon in a July 18 letter, and stated that it felt its award was “consistent with all laws and ordinances.”

“Upon further review the panel recommends that the City Manager appoint Captain Monica Lisle to one of the currently open Assistant Chief positions within the Alexandria Police Department,” the panel wrote in the letter.

The grievance panel determined that Parajon and Hayes were aware that the promotional process for the assistant chief job was faulty and did not stop it. The panel found 10 violations in city policy, including improperly posting the job announcement, appointing under-qualified officers to question candidates, appointing an all-Black panel that “improperly” considered race, and torpedoing Lisle’s application with unfairly low scores.

Last Wednesday, Uston heard the case and told the city and Lisle to expect her decision within 48 hours. On Tuesday (Sept. 5), she requested more information from the city on or before Friday (Sept. 8).

The City did not respond to questions on whether the city employees union was notified of the administrative change. A representative of the city’s employees union did not return calls for comment.

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