Spokane Mayor David Condon has moved aggressively to transform a city government undisturbed since implementation of the strong-mayor system 13 years ago. We have supported the badly needed restructuring, the consolidation of positions and his appointments.
Monday, Condon will ask the City Council to grant his and succeeding administrations authority to reshape the police and fire departments, which are overdue for a makeover. Condon says the city’s civil service system obstructs his planned reforms.
Civil service helps create a system in which employees advance based on merit, not favoritism. Workers have the security of knowing good work can lead to promotion; taxpayers have the assurance workers are qualified for their jobs, at least as far as a test can establish ability. Administrators can hire only applicants who score among the highest on tests developed for specific openings, which Condon says prevents him from promoting potential department leaders that may not test well, but have other qualities immeasurable on paper. His solution: multiplying departments within the city police and fire divisions, and thus the top positions exempt from civil service.
The semantics – division v. department – are important, says Glenn Kibbey, the head of the city’s Civil Service Office. Condon is not the first mayor to chaff at civil service limitations, he says, but unbundling divisions into departments in order to expand prerogatives is new.
Kibbey says the real problem is a broken employee evaluation system that makes it difficult for administrators to weight test scores by up to 20 percent using supervisor recommendations, appointee enthusiasm and other non-quantifiable factors. If civil service is unresponsive, he says, the fault lies in part with officials who have not provided the information his office needs to do its job.
In his 19 years of service, Condon is the first mayor he has never spoken with.
Condon and new Police Chief Frank Straub have already made most of the appointments that would be sanctioned by the city code changes that will go before the council. But the appointees will remain acting or temporary until the changes are made.
The mayor notes that appointees, by stepping out of civil service protection, become “at will,’’ exposing them to termination at any time. And when he leaves – he has already said he will run for another term – the next mayor does not have to retain them. But they do not lose protections they enjoy under union contracts, which are superior to those provided by civil service.
Spokane citizens are protected by the requirement that a majority of the City Council approve his appointments, which will number around 40 out of 2,000 city positions.
A memorandum to the City Council refers to the code changes as “updates.” They should be approved, but the work should not stop there. Freedom to appoint at will is not leeway to neglect the problems identified by Kibbey, starting with the failure to communicate. Unless the mayor is going to make a direct run at the civil service system – Seattle, he points out, has none – then accommodation must come from both sides.
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