As Independence investigates police overtime, a 2020 audit sounded warnings about payroll
Independence has hired a former prosecutor to examine potential overtime abuse in its police department. In 2020, an audit of a separate city department found weaknesses in timekeeping practices.
As Independence begins an investigation into how a police officer was able to log 2,800 hours of overtime last year, an audit from 2020 found problems with the city’s timekeeping practices in another department.
An audit from June 2020, which focused on Independence Power & Light, said a lack of oversight and accountability in payroll and timekeeping practices in a division of the city-owned utility could lead to malfeasance.
The audit recommended installing new timekeeping software for the utility, which all city departments then attempted to adopt. But that effort was scrapped two weeks ago.
And now Independence has hired a lawyer with the Spencer Fane law firm to investigate the police department’s potential overtime abuse. Dan Nelson, who until recently was the chief deputy Jackson County prosecutor, will lead the firm's investigation as the city’s special independent counsel.
A city councilman said Thursday he wanted to see an examination of overtime practices across several city departments.
“If there’s waste and there’s wrongdoing, we need to get to the bottom of it,” said Independence council member Mike Steinmeyer.
Documents obtained this week by the Midwest Newsroom show Master Officer Kevin Nightingale was paid $169,836 of overtime on top of his regular salary, much of it for renovating parts of the city’s police headquarters.
Working 2,800 hours of overtime amounts to an average of nearly 54 hours of extra work each week beyond regular hours.
Zach Walker, Independence city manager, said earlier this week that city policies set no limit on the number of overtime hours an employee could work. He added the city may revisit that policy.
Walker also said his office received monthly overtime reports, but that overtime hours incurred by the Independence Police Department were not spotted until a whistleblower mentioned it the week before.
“The physical limits of being able to oversee every timesheet, every overtime authorization is simply not practical and in fact, I would argue it would be an abusive waste of taxpayer dollars if that’s where my focus was at,” Walker said.
One employee has been placed on paid administrative leave. Walker would not identify that employee, but said a new acting chief has been appointed. No employee who took overtime has been accused of wrongdoing.
Walker, hired in 2016, could not be reached for comment for this story.
The 2020 analysis by then-city management analyst Mark Thoma-Perry showed it was common within Independence Power and Light’s transmission and distribution division for timesheets to be altered without any way of knowing who made the changes or if they were made before or after a supervisor signed the sheet.
The findings also revealed payroll records didn’t always match timesheet records, resulting in employees being paid for more time than they worked.
In addition, nearly one-third of time worked by the division was labeled “Unaccounted For” with no record of what work took place or where the work was done.
The audit recommended Walker expedite the implementation of a city-wide timekeeping solution called ExecuTime, along with several other recommendations to close gaps that could lead to timekeeping and overtime abuse.
ExecuTime was software the city planned to implement for city-wide timekeeping across all of its departments. But two weeks ago, the city council dumped the program after more than a year of work.
During a Jan. 28 meeting of the Independence City Council Audit and Finance Committee, consultant Ron Loos, who is helping the city bring its systems up to date, said the ExecuTime project had hit a “major snag” and that the city would need to seek different software.
Loos said currently the city’s 20 departments all record timekeeping manually and in different ways.
He said the problem stemmed from “significant challenges” related to the city’s "complex” union requirements that led to the ExecuTime software team determining their software wasn’t a good fit for Independence.
Walker, who attended the meeting by phone, said a system-wide solution would help bring the city’s timekeeping up-to-date.
“We’re trying to modernize a number of practices that were neglected to be invested in for decades,” Walker said.
City Councilmember Dan Hobart is a member of the Audit & Finance Committee. He said the failure of ExecuTime’s implementation came at a bad time when the city’s timekeeping shortcomings are on display.
“We obviously have giant holes in our timekeeping and pay,” Hobart said, adding that it was unacceptable that the city had more than 20 departments all doing different types of timekeeping for employees.
Hobart said the city had been speeding up the implementation of ExecuTime software to crack down on abnormal overtime for more than a year before the council learned the software wouldn’t work. Now, he said, the city has to start the process over.
Walker is facing criticism from some city council members for what council member Mike Steinmeyer said has been a "culmination" of problems.
Steinmeyer said more should have been done to make sure overtime abuse wasn’t taking place. He has called for a review of Walker’s performance.
Steinmeyer said his phone has “blown up” with city employees who say they have reported other problems to the city manager’s office that were not investigated. He said he’s worried as more information comes out, there will be more stories of taxpayer money being abused.
“There’s obviously been a breakdown in our city,” Steinmeyer said. “All of this started from a whistleblower tip and whistleblowing doesn’t just happen overnight. Becoming a whistleblower takes time and frustration, maybe that they’re not being heard… and nothing is happening.”
Last week he called for a closed-door meeting of the city council to discuss Walker’s performance. The meeting did not take place on Wednesday as several members didn’t show up.
Mayor Weir and council members Hobart, Karen Deluccie and John Perkins did not attend the meeting.