1st Amendment rights in jeopardy

Monday, Feb. 20
February 20, 2012
Who’s Your Buddy?
February 22, 2012

The administrator of a state hospital may have overstepped his authority and placed his office in violation of state civil service rules when he sent a short email to hospital employees two weeks ago.

His email actually pre-dated by eight days the email of LSU Systems President John Lombardi who last week sent out an email admonishing his LSU administrative personnel to be thankful they still have jobs and not to be critical of Jindal’s budget cuts.

Now it has been learned that on Feb. 1, Larry Dorsey, administrator of University Medical Center (UMC) in Lafayette issued an even sterner memorandum to the employees of his facility, which is facing the elimination of 130 positions.

Word of the impending layoffs at UMC went out in mid-January in the form of an email from Dr. Roxane Townsend, CEO of the Health Care Services Division of the LSU Health System.

In all, seven facilities will be affected by the layoffs, Dr. Townsend said. Those include, besides UMC, Bogalusa Medical Center, Earl K. Long Medical Center in Baton Rouge, Lallie Kemp Regional Medical Center in Independence, Leonard J. Chabert Medical Center in Houma, Interim LSU Public Hospital in New Orleans, and W.O. Moss Regional Medical Center in Lake Charles.

Dorsey pointed out that there will not be 130 employees who will lose their jobs because some of the eliminated jobs are vacant positions that will be abolished and that some employees would be allowed to “bump” those with less seniority in order to save their jobs. He did not say how many would actually lose their jobs or how many would be reassigned.

The layoffs at the seven facilities, scheduled to take effect on March 5 once they have been approved by the Director of Civil Service is being proposed due to the inability of the Health Care Services Division to realize $29 million in additional federal funding for care delivered to the uninsured and Medicaid population during the current 2011-12 fiscal year, Dr. Townsend’s memo said.

Here is Dorsey’s memorandum in its entirety:

“I have had discussions with our attorneys concerning a citizen organizing a rally outside of the hospital. I am directing all employees and physicians not to attend this event either on or off the clock. There are potential serious legal issues with our participating in such an event. Violation of this directive may result in discipline (sic) action against you.”

The rally, organized by private citizens who use the hospital, was held on Feb. 2, the day after Dorsey’s email.

Dorsey said he issued the directive on advice of his legal staff.

The directive, it turns out, is in direct contravention of the provisions of General Circular 2012-004, issued on Feb. 9 of this year by the Louisiana Department of Civil Service and drawn directly from the state lobbying act: R.S. 24:56. That date, by the way, just happens to coincide with the issuance of the Lombardi email.

The circular, a re-issue of a long-standing policy in anticipation of the 2012 legislative session in order to clarify state classified employees’ rights and restrictions, says that classified employees “are prohibited from engaging in efforts to support or oppose a candidate, party or faction in an election.”

But in the very next sentence, the circular says, “These constitutional restrictions do not prohibit a classified employee from expressing themselves either privately or publicly on issues that may be pending before the legislature or other body.”

The circular cautions employees than when speaking publicly on an issue, “make sure you are addressing matters that are of public concern and not personal to your particular work environment.” The elimination of positions at a state hospital would appear to come under the banner of public concern.

The circular also poses several questions, one of which asked if a classified employees attends a public rally, would it be permissible for the employee to “carry a sign, cheer and boo?”

The circular answered that rhetorical question by saying it is permissible for employees to carry signs, cheer and boo so long as the same standard of public concern is observed.

The circular said a classified employee is allowed to be a member of an organization that lobbies before the Legislature but that the employee cannot personally lobby legislators.

Active classified employees are allowed to attend rallies conducted by the Retired State Employees Association, even “on the steps of the Capitol so long as the employee is a member of the association and provided the employee is on approved annual leave if the rally is held during normal duty hours.”

To the question, “Would attending a rally be considered lobbying?” the circular said, “No, it would not. A rally is a gathering of people to inspire enthusiasm for a cause.”

The circular also said classified employees are allowed to place signs in their yards in opposition to or in support of proposed legislation.