The Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation Commission voted Thursday to ratify the firing of six employees as it took a number of actions designed to fix problems created by previous Open Meeting Act violations.
The six employees were among 16 workers who were given the option of accepting voluntary buyout agreements or being fired when their jobs were eliminated July 9 by Commission Chairman Troy Wilson.
Ten of those former workers accepted voluntary buyout agreements at a cost to the state of about $97,000, commissioners were told. The six who were fired have initiated two separate legal actions against the commission.
Commissioners voted 2-1 Thursday to ratify that Wilson was acting within his authority when he fired and granted voluntary buyout agreements to those 16 employees. Commissioner Denise Engle voted no.
It was one of several times during the meeting that Engle either voted no or abstained as the commission took several actions designed to expand or recognize extraordinary powers granted to the commission chairman.
One of those actions grants the chairman authority to control the commission’s agenda by giving him the power to choose whether to place items on the agenda that are requested by other commissioners.
“It seems that this vests an unbelievable amount of authority and control in the chair,” Engle protested. “There’s no opportunity here for a commissioner to get an item on the agenda even if it is requested, if the chair deems that it is not in his best interest.”
The commission voted 2-1 to give the chairman that authority for three months. This issue is scheduled to be revisited in November.
In other action, the commission voted to:
Construe the commission’s enabling statute as granting the chairman the authority to hire and fire all employees who serve administrative functions, while reserving to the commission as a whole the power to hire and fire employees who serve decision-making or policy-making functions.
Ratify the Feb. 1 hiring of eight employees.
Grant the commission chairman the responsibility of hiring, firing and fixing the salaries of all commission employees except the executive director, administrative law judges, attorneys/law clerks and the medical director.
Grant the chairman the power to enter into all leases and contracts involving expenditures of $50,000 or less.
Give the chairman the authority to assign tasks and set deadlines.
Grant the chairman the power to develop an organizational structure and determine staff hierarchies.
Commissioners also voted to delay installation of an electronic data interchange system until at least next fiscal year and use money designated for that purpose to hire employees to process workers’ compensation filings. State law required that the system was to be implemented by July 1, 2014, a deadline that was missed more than a month ago.
“We are in no way trying to tell the Legislature that we are usurping their authority in that they have directed us to establish an electronic data interface program here,” Engle said. “It is simply a lack of funding that we are unable at this time to follow through with that.”
Wilson said the project also has been delayed because the commission had to start over with the bidding process for selecting a contractor. That move was necessary because of questions about whether the state Open Meeting Act was violated when commissioners met with a potential contractor behind closed doors.
“We are definitely behind the eight ball in trying to get the paperwork done,” Wilson said.