Municipalities can be complicated and complex entities serving hundreds to thousands of individuals and businesses, while employing numerous people themselves. Cities, not unlike any small or big business, face similar challenges (and liabilities) as any private corporation, only with the added mandate of providing services and protection for all of those who work or live within their boundaries. It is impossible, of course, to eliminate all liability facing municipalities in today’s public sector legal environment. Still, liability can be avoided to a large degree with planning and consideration. With that in mind, below are five ways municipalities invite exposure to liability, but more importantly, insight on how to prevent it.
Liability Exposure: Bad Polices (or No Policies at All)
A solid, consistently applied set of policies or procedures is the single best way to anticipate liability and meet potential liability head-on. These should be written in such a manner that all employees can understand, and they should be reviewed on a regular basis for both internal consistency and compliance with laws and regulations. To be sure, should litigation arise, policies and procedures will take a front stage when incidents do occur, so the considered approach is to make written documentation of the municipality’s commitment to the safety, health and overall well-being of those in its employ and charge. A policy manual is not just a roadmap for crisis, however; it is a basic communications tool that makes expectations clear between upper and lower levels of administration.
Liability Exposure: Insufficient Training or Supervision
Hand-in-hand with policies and procedures, the failure to appropriately (and yes, consistently) train or supervise municipal employees is another way cities unknowingly or unwittingly expose themselves to liability. Even the best written policies and procedures have little value if employees are not trained to adequately follow and apply them in their job. This requires consistent training and regular supervision, especially where areas of regulatory or legal compliance are concerned, such as in processing leave requests or requests for reasonable accommodation. The actions of employees subject the employer to liability, but the best defense is a well-trained and supervised workforce.
Liability Exposure: Lack of Departmental Oversight
A step up from employee supervision is departmental oversight. When departments act without oversight from a group with authority, the results can be disastrous. As in some corporate cultures, , departments can be susceptible to groupthink, which then results in mission creep or even less-than-desirable behavior. Oversight provides departments with boundaries, and it helps to maintain their mandate and mission, improving overall efficiency and keeping departments working toward the correct goals.
Liability Exposure: Letting Internal Politics Threaten Unity
It’s easy to stay out of the fray, but by remaining passive and letting dissension grow among employees, the most common outcome is loss of productivity and overall discontent. There will be times when it is necessary to remind employees of the common goal you are working toward, uniting them for the benefit of both morale and productivity. When internal politics lead to dissent, active steps are required. Not to simply quash the dissent, but to raise morale, hear and respond to such criticisms with an open mind, and unify employees. In our experience representing numerous cities across state and federal jurisdictions, employees are more likely to ignore policies and procedures or respond to supervision when their criticisms or suggestions for improvement are ignored. Don’t let the situation get out of control before you step in. Being proactive and responsive to criticism, discontent, and low employee morale, is an imperative for an efficiently run city.
Liability Exposure: General Organization
Always be prepared. Finally, municipalities leave themselves open to liability by the mere fact of failing to prepare for common situations that may arise in the day-to-day operation of a city. Consult city attorneys on policies, the law, and how to address and respond to employee incidents. File meticulous paperwork and make sure all employees are doing so. Keep personnel files up to date. And as stated throughout this article – enact reasonable policies and offer sufficient training regarding those policies.