You have to hand it to current Land Commissioner, Pirate Captain, and Secretary of State-elect John Thurston. Usually, a person has to actually be in the office they were elected to before it is possible to violate laws related to personnel hiring, firing, and leave.
Thurston, however, is an overachiever.
On November 30, on some snazzy new Secretary-Elect letterhead, Thurston sent the following letter to ten current Secretary of State employees:
I regret to inform you that your employment with the Secretary of State’s office will end on January 14, 2019.
Thank you for your service to the Secretary of State’s office, and I wish you all the best in your future endeavors. Please contact Vicki Slay in the Human Resources division by Monday, December 3 with any questions and to complete your exit paperwork.
According to affected staff, and as reported elsewhere, while the employees’ service was going to end on January 14, those employees were told to go ahead and clean out their offices, as they would be on administrative leave with pay from December 3 through January 14.
That is to say, John Thurston was telling current Secretary of State staff that they were no longer needed for work, but that they would still get paid. Why Thurston, who is not yet the Secretary of State, would have the authority to tell people not to work or to determine who was paid and in what capacity prior to his swearing in was unclear.
What was clear, however, to everyone but Thurston and (apparently) current office-holder Mark Martin, was that this arrangement was not legal. On December 7, Chief Deputy Kelly Boyd sent a letter to the same employees, writing:
The Arkansas Attorney General has notified us that we are unable to offer administrative leave with pay to those employees who will not be retained by Secretary of State-Elect John Thurston. As a result, we are providing you with two options:
1. You can resign effective Monday, December 3, 2018 and receive any due unpaid accrued vacation time with your final pay (up to 240 hours).
2. Alternatively, you may choose to exhaust your accrued leave and remain an SOS employee during that time. Once accrued leave has been exhausted, you will be placed on leave without pay until January 12, 2019 at which time your employment will cease. If you find employment elsewhere during this time, you must notify the human resources department immediately.
The employees were then told to let human resources know which option they wanted by December 10, 2018, with anyone who did not select an option being automatically put into the first group.
It is one thing to buy a boat with office funds based on some weird, demonstrably false assertion that you needed the boat to inspect lands. It is quite another thing to come in before you’ve even taken office, demonstrate to everyone that you have no idea what the limits of your ability to pay people are, and then force current employees to either take vacation leave as a lump sum or use it and continue to be employed in name only. The former marks you as someone who pushes the limits of his office’s powers; the latter means that you literally have no idea what the limits are and you are willing to act before finding out.
I did not think it was possible that we would ever pine for the halcyon days of Mark Martin’s tenure in office. Over the next four years, John Thurston might prove me wrong.