By TOMI L. WILEYSpecial to The Wilson Post
MT. JULIET -- “Shocking” was the word of the night Monday when a former Mt. Juliet department head faced the city commission in an appeal to be reinstated to his position only to have unsettling issues unveiled and the hearing continued on a later date.
The courtroom at city hall was standing room only for the appeal hearing of Dennis Buchanan, who served as director of the Mt. Juliet Parks Department for the past 12 years. He was terminated via letter on March 26 after nearly a year of paid medical leave due to a work-related back injury.
Buchanan, an undisputed “team player” and valued member of the Mt. Juliet community, appealed the termination per his right as outlined in the Mt. Juliet city employee personnel policy. The hearing Monday night was difficult for those involved on both sides of the issue, with two statements seeming to sum up the entire situation.
“Dennis, I just hate this,” remarked Mt. Juliet Mayor Linda Elam, leaning toward the man and speaking low, as if just to him, “I’m sorry.”
Elam was attempting to “reconcile how you can come back to work so recently after surgery (in March) when you’re having problems even getting into your chair.”
Mt. Juliet City Manager Randy Robertson also seemed to sum up the situation as he related his side of terminating Buchanan, who he said had “led a very active lifestyle” before his injury and had not been singled out to take two “Fitness for Duty” physical tests:
“I’m damned if I do, and I’m damned if I don’t,” Robertson said, throwing his hands up.
Robertson said this after admitting that he was “dumbfounded” when he found out from Buchanan’s first attorney that Buchanan has tapes of conversations he recorded between himself and city employees. Assistant Parks Director Rocky Lee testified that Buchanan attempted to record a conversation between them without Lee’s knowledge before Lee saw the audio recorder and Buchanan confessed.
Buchanan acknowledged that he had taped conversations between himself and Human Resources Manager Jill Johnson, City Receptionist Tina Guinan and Robertson. Buchanan said he recorded the conversations because he had heard rumors about, and had been personally asked, if he was going to be fired. He said he was trying to protect himself.
The fact that he had surreptitiously recorded conversations between city employees spurred a second, amended termination letter from Robertson to Buchanan on April 26, stating that Buchanan violated city personnel policy when he did so – a policy that Buchanan, as a department head, helped write, approved and signed off on when the new policy manual was constructed.
Buchanan is being represented by attorney Tara Swafford, who extensively detailed Buchanan’s injury and the subsequent events leading up to Buchanan’s termination. Buchanan fell 4 feet to the ground off of a stage while helping set up for the Mt. Juliet Star singing competition in June 2008. He was assigned a doctor through the City’s worker’s compensation program and assigned light duty restrictions: he could only lift 15 pounds or less, no climbing tall ladders, stooping or bending, and he had to take the prescribed pain medication.
During that time, Robertson completed a performance evaluation on Buchanan, giving him satisfactory marks, with no comments made about an inability to do his job or any heavy lifting. When Buchanan’s back didn’t “seem to get any better,” Swafford said, the doctor recommended back surgery, which resulted in a set of “leads” planted in Buchanan’s back and a battery pack insertion to stimulate the spine and help control the pain. Buchanan was placed on paid medical leave from the City, Swafford said, and when he attempted to return to work Robertson required the Fitness for Duty test. Swafford said neither Buchanan’s doctor nor worker’s compensation representative were consulted about the test, which, according to Buchanan, is when the problems really began.
Buchanan detailed a four-hour physically grueling test in which he had to perform tasks that he normally wouldn’t have to for his job as parks director and which “tore (him) up.” He said that after the physical he was evaluated by his doctor, who said the leads in his back had “bowed,” and as a result Buchanan had to have additional back surgery.
“But like the Energizer bunny, he comes back ready to work in January,” Swafford said. Buchanan had exhausted his workers comp time and was using sick leave when Robertson reportedly asked for another physical test, despite the fact that Buchanan’s doctor recommended Buchanan not undertake the fitness test again.
Swafford said that Robertson was concerned about Buchanan’s use of narcotics and anti-depressants, which Buchanan said he was taking because he wanted to come back to work and wasn’t being allowed to.
Buchanan testified that he underwent another “elective” back surgery in order to relieve some of his back pain. He was recovering in March of this year when he was terminated.
“This was a blatant discrimination and violation of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), both the termination and physical tests,” Swafford said, adding that Robertson reportedly told Buchanan that “it’s God’s will and he needs to go out on disability.”
According to Swafford, after the appeal was triggered settlement discussions occurred between Buchanan and Robertson last week, and the termination letter was amended to include the tape recordings as grounds for termination. Swafford said Robertson told Buchanan that the former parks director “needs to settle or his reputation will be ruined.”
Buchanan’s reputation was in question, according to Swafford, after his personnel file was “trotted out” in an article included in The Chronicle of Mt. Juliet on April 14, in which letters of reprimand were reported and detailed – one letter which Buchanan said he’d never seen before.
Buchanan testified that he had never been disciplined before Robertson became city manager, but a letter in Buchanan’s file dated Dec. 11, 2006, from then city manager Rob Shearer reprimanded Buchanan for erecting a sign outside city hall that was against City policy and angered Elam. Buchanan claimed he had no knowledge of the letter before it was referred to in The Chronicle, and said that Shearer claims not to have any memory of the letter.
Elam disagreed, saying that Buchanan was present when the discussion about the sign happened, and Buchanan put the sign up anyway. She admitted to being mad, and to looking into Buchanan’s personnel file “just days” after the incident, when she saw the letter of reprimand from Shearer.
Another “shocking” statement occurred when City Attorney Jason Holleman was discussing Buchanan’s narcotic use with him. Holleman asked Buchanan if he thought it was “appropriate” for Buchanan to drive City vehicles while under the influence of pain medication. Buchanan said he believed it was.
A main point of both arguments was the physical aspect of Buchanan’s job: while he is a department head and therefore mainly administrative, he is both expected and willing to “pitch in” and help his Parks employees with physical tasks, including a variety of activities from building sets for special events to driving City vehicles.
District 1 Commissioner Ted Floyd pointed out that Buchanan’s file states that Buchanan is taking Percocet for pain. Floyd asked if there is a sticker on the side of Buchanan’s bottle that states people taking the drug should not operate heavy machinery. Buchanan said there is. Floyd nodded, his eyes down.
“I recognize that look,” Elam told Buchanan, adding that she has had problems with her back as well. “You were in physical pain just lowering yourself into the chair. How can you tell me that being in that kind of pain you can come back and fulfill your job functions?”
Swallowing hard, Buchanan said, “I love my job. And as a man you don’t want to give up -- you provide for your family. I’m here to get my job back. I can serve as parks director now.”
The hearing was recessed at 12:15 a.m. and will continue on Saturday, May 8, at 10 a.m. at Mt. Juliet City Hall.
Editor’s Note: Tomi L. Wiley is the editor of The Chronicle of Mt. Juliet. She may be contacted at Editor@thechronicleofmtjuliet.com.