Five city of Billings employees were suspended without pay for five days last spring for visiting inappropriate websites on their work computers.
Assistant City Administrator Bruce McCandless declined to name the employees or to say even in general terms what their positions were, only confirming that infractions were discovered and discipline dealt out.
The Gazette has filed a public information request for the names of those involved and that is still being reviewed by City Attorney Brent Brooks, McCandless said, but for now he believes that the employees have a right to privacy.
"I think it has the potential to ruin personal and professional lives," he said.
He also said that while some of the employees may have had some managerial responsibilities, none of them held high-level management positions in the city.
As for what the employees were viewing on their computers, McCandless said, "I wouldn't define what I saw as pornography."
"But it was still inappropriate and that is why we acted the way we did," said Karla Stanton, the city's human resources manager.
Stanton did go so far as to say that "a lot of it was just top frontal nudity or scantily clad women in lingerie."
McCandless said the state acts as the city's Internet provider and has always blocked access to numerous sites, including adult-content sites and popular sites like YouTube and Facebook that are unlikely to have any bearing on city work.
The employees' activities were noticed last spring, when the city's information technology supervisor, David Watterson, was working to tighten the filter to block even more sites than the state had already blocked.
In the course of that work, McCandless said, Watterson came across instances where the five employees in question had made multiple attempts to access blocked sites.
McCandless said the pattern made it clear that the employees were going back to the same sites repeatedly, trying to gain access. Watterson brought the matter to Stanton's attention.
"We felt it was serious enough to go to a due process letter," Stanton said.
That process is used when employees are facing the possibility of suspension without pay, offering them the chance to appear at a due process hearing to defend themselves.
Of the 850 people employed by the city, McCandless said, probably about 500 of them have regular access to computers at work.
Four of the employees immediately waived the due hearing process and admitted looking at or attempting to access inappropriate websites. The fifth employee did request a hearing, Stanton said, but at the hearing made the same confession as the others.
"Disciplines were harsh — five-day suspensions without pay," Stanton said.
She and McCandless said the intent in all five cases was to make sure the employees were disciplined but to allow them to return to work and learn from their mistakes.
"We do think we've corrected the problem" because there have been no further indications that any city employees have attempted to access blocked sites since last spring, McCandless said.