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Shawn Vestal: Condon’s civil service remake merits closer study

Sat., April 6, 2013, midnight

Mayor David Condon’s proposal to skirt civil service rules and expand the number of administration-appointed managers in the police and fire departments is worth considering. In particular, the need for reform in the Police Department is a persuasive reason to try something new.

But Council President Ben Stuckart’s objections are worth considering, as well. He needs only to point to the county’s not-so-distant-history with the county’s full-employment policy with the Harris family to remind us that unrestrained power in the executive is not always what it’s cracked up to be.

So, maybe we ought to consider both sides a little more. Argue it out. Maybe even ask citizens to vote on it.

Condon’s proposal is accompanied by his trademark sense of urgency, and it’s headed for a City Council vote next week. But his sense of urgency is often explained, by the mayor himself, as the clock ticking on his mayoralty – by his own sense of limited time to accomplish his goals. Which is not exactly the same thing as urgency for the community; moving to radically remake the system to downgrade civil service rules and elevate the discretionary hiring of managers might be worth a closer look.

Civil service is the system meant to protect and secure public employment from the shifting winds of politics. It’s meant to prevent politicians from awarding too many goodies to friends and backers, to limit cronyism, to prevent retaliation; in the process of doing so, it creates a system of hiring and promotion that is bureaucratic and slow-moving and immune to the fast-twitch impulses of a change agent.

Civil service is not mere habit or practice – it’s in the city’s charter. And not only that. Voters rejected, with an overwhelming majority, a proposal in 1991 to shave back civil service. It’s been 22 years, and perhaps we have reason to reconsider that earlier vote – but we also have reason to be respectful of the charter and the voters’ latest recorded wishes.

Under the charter, employment in almost every department is governed by civil service rules – except for the top two administrators in each department. A mayor can select his top people in each city department; Condon wants to expand that number, rather dramatically.

He wants to redefine the police and fire departments as divisions; the fire division would comprise seven separate departments, and the police division would have six departments. He could then select 14 police administrators and 16 fire administrators – rather than two.

In some ways, it seems not wildly out of bounds for leaders to pick their own teams. But the change would be dramatic, and one senses – as one often senses at City Hall – an underlying hostility toward public employees, or at least their unions, bubbling under the surface. The desire to dethrone the unions and cut through the binding civil service rules is strong – especially among conservatives, whose animus toward the Fire Department, in particular, seems barely restrained. It is not a secret that some would like to put an end to civil service altogether, or at least put that idea on the table.

Civil service is a fly in the ointment for quick action, and it may be that changes are needed. Condon’s description of why he needs to reorganize the Police Department is persuasive; he notes that fixing the department was his No. 1 campaign promise and that people – including we cacklers in the press – have demanded that the city do a better job of combating our woeful crime rate.

To do this, he and Straub want to change the way the department works, breaking the organization into precincts where police resources and responses are more closely gauged by the immediate local needs. For that to work, Condon says, each precinct needs a leader with autonomy and one who has bought into the new system – status quo defenders need not apply.

I’ll buy that, as far as it goes.

But does it go too far?

Or does it just seem that way, because it’s going so fast?

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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