The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

January 19, 2013

Records detail Stephens' exit as city worker

By James Neal, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — Enid City Commission Ward 3 candidate Eldon Stephens was involuntarily terminated from his employment with the city last August, but later was permitted to submit a retroactive letter of resignation after a union-brokered settlement with the city, records show.

The city provided the records of Stephens’ termination and settlement in response to an Oklahoma Open Records Act request filed by the News & Eagle. The request was made as part of News & Eagle background checks on candidates for the upcoming Enid City Commission election. Stephens was the only candidate to have been a paid employee for the city of Enid.

PDF: Police reports, termination, settlement agreement, Benson memo

According to city records, Stephens was hired in June 1989 and remained a city employee until his termination on Aug. 16, 2012.

Stephens worked as a heavy-equipment operator at an hourly wage of $19.04 before his termination last August, records show.

City records indicate the termination was involuntary, pursuant to disciplinary action taken after an accident involving a city vehicle.

According to an Enid Police Department traffic collision report, Stephens was driving an International model 1754 truck south in the 1400 block of South 10th on July 27, 2012. Riding with Stephens was an inmate “assigned to work for the city of Enid in a pre-release capacity,” according to city records.

According to the EPD report, Stephens told officers he drove off the right side of the road while attempting to avoid oncoming traffic, that he tried to turn back onto the road, but “was unable to, when the truck flipped.”

The truck rolled three-quarters of a revolution, coming to rest on the driver’s side in the ditch, according to the report.

EPD Officer Brian Schwarzkopf described the accident in his report.

“From what the accident scene was showing of what the truck did and had happened, I concluded that the truck had almost fully driven off of the west side of the road into the ditch, and the truck was either driving over the posted speed limit of South 10th, or the driver of the truck was not paying attention to how or where he was driving,” Schwarzkopf wrote. “From what the accident scene showed, if the driver would have stopped the truck in the ditch, the truck would not have rolled over.”

Schwarzkopf also noted in his report witnesses at the scene did not see any other vehicles on the road at the time of the accident.

The EPD report does not list any citations issued in the accident, but does list “Inattention — other” as an “unsafe/unlawful contributing factor.”

Records outline allegations

Records show Stephens subsequently was terminated from employment with the city, based on allegations: He was at fault in the accident, causing more than $9,000 in damage to city property; he was not authorized to transport the inmate off city property; and his account of the accident “changed from his initial statement to statements that he made later.”

Those allegations were outlined in an Aug. 16, 2012, letter to Stephens from Enid City Manager Eric Benson regarding Stephens’ appeal of disciplinary action.

Benson stated in the letter Stephens was found by supervisors to have violated city policies regarding: insubordination, or refusal to comply with management’s lawful instructions; destruction of city property or property of others; falsification of records, or providing false information; and unreasonable failure to follow safety policies.

The letter states Stephens admitted he rolled the vehicle and had an inmate with him at the time, but denied he was at fault in the accident and claimed he was taking evasive action.

Stephens also argued in his appeal he was taking the inmate to a city water station on 10th, and so was not taking the inmate off city property, and that his “words may have changed” but his “story and account of the incident has not,” according to Benson’s letter.

The letter also states Stephens filed the appeal of his termination on the grounds he deemed the punishment inappropriate for the offense.

Benson wrote in his letter to Stephens, “These are all serious charges, with the punishment of any of these charges equating to suspension, demotion or discharge.”

Benson upheld Stephens’ termination, according to the letter, writing that Stephens’ employment record at the city “shows a history of discipline and low performance ratings.”

“This pattern demonstrates an unacceptable disregard for safe work practices and disregard of management’s instructions,” Benson wrote.

Stephens: ‘I resigned from the city’

When contacted by the News & Eagle concerning his employment with the city, Stephens said he had worked for 23 years in the landfill and solid-waste department, and that he resigned from the city and currently is pursing a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Northwestern Oklahoma State University-Enid.

When asked about the city records of his termination, Stephens replied “I resigned from the city. That’s all I can comment on my leaving the city.”

Stephens later provided the News & Eagle with a signed letter of resignation dated Dec. 13, 2012. Stephens wrote in the letter “Effective (Aug. 12, 2012) I resign from my employment with the city of Enid.”

Stephens again declined to comment on the terms of his separation from employment with the city.

“I entered into an agreement that allowed me to resign, and I am bound by that agreement that I can’t disclose the terms under which I resigned,” Stephens said.

Records provided by the city pursuant to a News & Eagle records request show Stephens filed a grievance against the city through the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1136.

Stephens, AFSCME and the city entered into arbitration in the grievance. According to the agreement, the arbitration was settled on Dec. 11, 2012, with the city paying a settlement of $19,801.60.

According to the settlement agreement, the city settled with the payment “to avoid expenditures of time and money.”

The settlement terms included AFSCME withdrawing its grievance against the city, and forfeit of any future claims by Stephens against the city related to his separation.

Settlement terms also permitted Stephens to submit a resignation letter, retroactive to his separation date, and the city agreed to “substitute the letter of resignation for the discharge letter in Stephens’ personnel file.”

The terms did not include an admission of wrongdoing on the part of Stephens or the city, but did expressly prohibit Stephens and AFSCME from talking about the settlement.

A confidentiality clause in the settlement prohibits Stephens, his spouse and attorneys and AFSCME from disclosing the terms of the grievance settlement. The settlement specifies a penalty of $1,980 as a “presumptively reasonable amount for breach of this confidentiality clause.”

Stephens said he is sticking to the confidentiality clause, but added his desire to run for city commission is not related to his release from city employment.

“I always said when I retired from the city of Enid I would run for city council,” Stephens said. “I’m not running because they got rid of me, period. I’m running because I want to run.”

Stephens is running against Enid attorney Ben Ezzell for the Ward 3 seat on the Enid City Commission. The race will be decided in the city election on Feb. 12.

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