Petulance is not an attribute one seeks in leadership. And yet it is the one that keeps coming to me when considering Staunton City Council’s lawsuit against a former police officer.

It seems council’s collective noses are out of joint because a young mother prefers to work for Staunton’s taxpayer funded Sheriff’s department instead of Staunton’s taxpayer funded police department.

Carter Thompson had been hired and trained as a Staunton Police Officer in 2016. She resigned the position in 2018. Terms of her hire required compensating the city for a portion of training costs, should she leave Staunton for another law enforcement agency within three years. Given Staunton is now seeking $4,000 for training compensation and $1,000 for legal fees, it seems Ms. Thompson fell 8 months short of fulfilling that commitment.

If you are of a mind that a contract is a contract and Staunton is simply acting in accordance with the terms of the contract; I can understand that. But if something about this strikes you as heavy handed, or at least small minded, please read on.

Augusta County does not have a payback precondition when hiring for jobs equally expensive in local training costs: fire and rescue personnel. Nor does Augusta’s Sheriff, Donald Smith, demand such an obligation. The county does not take people to court for taking another job in county government or even when they leave to go to Staunton as has often happened.

There is always a cost in a hire, and it is always a loss of value when people leave — sooner or later. But this is simply the cost of doing business in an era and area of low unemployment. And it is the cost of being in a free society. Taking a punitive approach to an employee’s change of heart or circumstance, strikes me as not just unseemly but ineffective in building a cohesive work force.

And shouldn’t employment conditions be a two-way street? Staunton has the penalty for leaving before three years expire but gives no guarantee of employment for the same period. City council maintains the right to terminate should budget conditions change or they find displeasure with the person’s work or attitude.

But a fired employee, who has committed to the city, has no similar ability to secure compensation to offset their losses when facing an unexpected discharge. Let’s be clear the employer always has the upper hand over its workers.

The right to leave is essentially the only power a worker has. Jobs in our chosen economic model are “at will.” That is at the will of the employer not the need of the family breadwinner (C’est la vie).

But rather than speaking broadly, let’s consider this single event. Ms. Thompson thought she wanted to be a Staunton police officer. She successfully passed her training and was assigned to active duty. There were signs that the demands of patrol, whether the work or the shifts, were somehow challenging for her. She sought light duty work.

Pregnancy and motherhood followed. Because Staunton lacked a sufficient maternity leave policy she had to secure “sick days” from co-workers that she might stay out even the minimum allotted time. This instead of leaving her baby in daycare too soon or risk loss of pay or job.

I have no knowledge other than the newspaper’s account. From it though I imagined a young person believing that law enforcement was her calling. But once forced to face some of the more challenging aspects of the job, she found it not such a good fit.

And who among us has not had a change of perspective with the birth of a son or daughter? The shift work of a patrol officer is a challenge for child care. A rethinking of the inherent risks posed in potential armed conflict may have brought a new worry about the baby’s future without her.

That Carter Thompson found a way to use the skill-set provided by Staunton, for Staunton, in a way better suited to her new circumstances of motherhood, should be appreciated not made a hardship. No one outside of the council and its administrators could know what possible difference it makes to city residents whether a trained officer works for a Staunton Police Captain or a Staunton Sheriff.

A newborn needs their mother. Staunton needs willing law enforcement officers. The citizens of Staunton want returns on their investments. Council should choose a victory lap over raining on a Deputy’s parade, disjointed noses notwithstanding.

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Tracy Pyles, a former chairman and member of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors who lives in Augusta County, is a columnist for The News Virginian. His column is published Sundays.

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