During Spokane County Commissioner Phil Harris’ 12 years in office, all three of his kids got county jobs – including one who worked in economic development despite filing for bankruptcy three times.
That probably wouldn’t have happened at Spokane City Hall, where a voter-approved, century-old Civil Service system examines the abilities of applicants for nearly all city jobs.
But a proposal from Mayor David Condon to weaken Civil Service rules for some police and fire positions has rekindled a familiar conflict pitting the risk of an entrenched, unresponsive bureaucracy against good ol’ boy cronyism. And the memory of Harris’ nepotistic tenure at the Spokane County Commission has become a frequent side note in the quiet-but-intensifying debate at City Hall.
“It’s a real-world example in Spokane County where somebody hired three of his sons,” City Council President Ben Stuckart said of Harris recently after administrators presented the plan. “That’s what Civil Service protects us against.”
Condon defends his plan by saying he simply wants to expand the number of workers he can hire without Civil Service review beyond the narrow flexibility already offered. The mayor says police and fire chiefs, who each oversee more than 300 workers, need greater flexibility to hire for leadership posts.
Currently, two employees in each city department can be hired outside of the Civil Service system. Those positions typically are the department’s director and assistant director.
Condon would elevate the police and fire departments into divisions. Six separate departments would be created within the police division and seven within the fire division. Instead of having the power to select just two police employees outside Civil Service rules – the chief and assistant chief – Condon could pick up to 14 because of the expanded department structure. In the Fire Department, non-Civil Service positions would increase from two to 16.
The proposal will be considered by the City Council on April 8.
Condon dismisses any comparison to the controversial hiring at the county. He says the City Council will act as a counterbalance against nepotism because it must approve all his picks for department directors and the funding for the director and assistant directors. Administrators say that even after approval by the council, most changes would have to be negotiated with unions and some positions may not even be created because of budget concerns.
With the city’s Use of Force Commission calling for a change in culture in the Police Department in the aftermath of an ex-officer sent to prison, Chief Frank Straub needs more control over who serves in the top positions, Condon said.
“If you want to drive down crime, affect the culture of my police department and do it in a financially responsible way, these are the changes to Civil Service I need,” Condon said.
While Condon says he’s not focused on eliminating the system, some City Council members hope to spark that debate.
In January, Councilman Mike Allen’s legislative assistant invited Civil Service Chief Examiner Glenn Kibbey to a meeting. When Kibbey asked what it was about, she replied that it would be an overview of Civil Service and “the beginning dialogue on improvements or elimination.”
Patronage or stagnation
Experts agree that there are two sides to Civil Service.
The positive: It generates a qualified and experienced workforce largely free of political interference.
The negative: It creates an entrenched bureaucracy that can be resistant to change.
In Spokane, change at the top has been constant. Voters haven’t re-elected a mayor for 40 years. Since the mayor – instead of a city manager – was given control of City Hall administration in 2001, five people have held the top spot.
While Civil Service has ensured stability during constant leadership turnover, those protections also arguably acted as a drag on reform, especially with no mayor serving longer than four years and a month.
Civil servants “have their own vision of what good public policy is,” said Sean Gailmard, a political science associate professor at the University of California at Berkeley. “It does limit their responsiveness to elected officials.”
But Gailmard, who has co-written a book focused partly on civil service, said the more positions free from civil service oversight, the more potential there is for old-fashioned patronage.
“If the mayor has plum positions to hand out, the mayor can create a de facto patronage network,” Gailmard said. “The mayor can use that network to bolster his own political advancement.”
While the City Council must approve Condon’s picks for department directors, it doesn’t get a say on those selected as assistant directors.
Civil Service was voters’ will
Spokane’s Civil Service Commission controls the hiring for most positions and promotions in the city. The Civil Service department keeps a list of qualified applicants for each position. Depending on the job, managers can choose anyone who made the list of those deemed qualified or pick from a specified number of the top candidates, or must choose the candidate who ranks first by the commission’s process.
Employees who are disciplined or fired can also appeal to the commission, which has the power to place workers wrongly fired back on the payroll.
In 1991, the city asked voters for the right to hire three managers in each department without Civil Service rights. Voters rejected that proposal by 81 percent.
Now, the overwhelming majority of the roughly 2,000 employees on the City Hall payroll are covered by Civil Service protections.
Doug Amsbury, who served on a committee in 1960 that successfully fought for Civil Service reform, said the proposed plan would circumvent the voters’ will. Voters first approved the Civil Service system in 1910. They expanded it in 1955 and guaranteed it would be funded in 1960.
Administrators “want to figure out some backdoor system,” said Amsbury, a former Civil Service commissioner and former president of the Spokane Firefighters Union. “They want to be able to hire and fire at will without any consideration about merit.”
But former City Councilman Steve Eugster, who drafted much of the current City Charter, said the rules don’t prevent the City Council from creating more departments, even if the purpose is to create more non-Civil Service jobs.
And administrators insist that the plan simply organizes the police and fire departments like much of the rest of city government.
Jan Quintrall, who leads the division of business and developer services, oversees 260 employees. Because her division is broken into seven departments, she can select up to 14 managers without Civil Service protections. The Police Department has nearly 400 workers. To change the culture of a large division, the police chief needs to control the hiring of more than two people, she said.
City Administrator Theresa Sanders said, “What we’re doing is finally bringing police and fire into the realm of the rest of the divisions where they have multiple departments and can manage them in a more flexible manner.”
Testing can be inadequate
Quintrall said she understands the importance of Civil Service for many positions, but testing is often antiquated or inadequate. Tests don’t eliminate candidates who don’t have the proper disposition to deal with citizens in roles that require considerable public interaction. And applicants often are given a paper test, making it impossible to evaluate their computer skills. She said she’s seen clerks hired who need training for basic computer programs because the Civil Service didn’t test for it.
Some council members say the system is too reliant on testing.
“Our job is to really make sure that we get the right people in the right position and then hold those folks accountable as opposed to who is the best test taker,” Allen said. “That may not produce the right person with a complete set of skills.”
But Kibbey said not all processes are paper-and-pencil tests. Police and fire positions include physical tests. Some are problem-solving, role-playing tests judged by outside evaluators. A promotional opening may require an extensive resume. A portion of scores for promotional openings is based on employee job reviews.
‘Yes men’ or team players
Police Chief Frank Straub used a baseball analogy to argue for the new hiring plan. A manager, he said, has to have the ability to pick the best players for each position.
“Sometimes the Civil Service system doesn’t necessarily allow you to dip into an organization and pick somebody who is incredibly talented who may have been sitting there waiting for their chance to take a leadership position and to make an impact in the organization,” Straub said.
Some department leaders have more flexibility to pick top managers within the Civil Service system. As a result of union agreements, Straub, for instance, can pick anyone deemed qualified by the Civil Service Commission to be the department’s two commanders and three captains. He can choose among the top three candidates for any lieutenant job.
That compares with the Fire Department, where Chief Bobby Williams faces stricter hiring rules. He is required to pick the candidate ranked first by Civil Service for all upper-level positions, including battalion chiefs. Williams only has flexibility in selecting the non-Civil Service assistant chief and two deputy chiefs, whom he can choose from the eligible list.
Williams said department leaders should have more hiring flexibility to ensure that key leaders back the chief’s vision.
“I can’t think of many $46 million operations in which the leader of the operation doesn’t have a say in filling the key roles,” Williams said.
But Fire Battalion Chief Clive Jones, president of the Spokane Association of Fire Officers, said using Civil Service to select upper managers means that the chief hears multiple perspectives from qualified managers.
Without Civil Service in the mix, a chief would likely only select people in top positions who wouldn’t offer competing ideas: “Good ideas don’t always come from your ‘yes people,’ ” Jones said.
Jones said that while upper-level managers are willing to voice their concerns to the chief, they also respect his position and final decision.
“When it is all said and done, his vision and his outlook is the one that is sold without a doubt,” Jones said.
Jones and other Civil Service supporters also note that all new and recently promoted employees are on probation for a year, during which managers have wider authority to fire or demote employees.
But Lt. Dan Torok, president of the Police Lieutenants and Captains Association, said even if the number of non-Civil Service workers in the Police Department jumps to 14, that’s still less than 5 percent of the department.
“With the percentage and numbers we’re actually talking about, it’s not alarming to us,” Torok said.
Councilman Steve Salvatori said the plan helps managers change two departments that must adapt as a result of budget cuts or controversy.
“If we don’t give the people with executive authority in those departments the ability to create those departments to react to that change, we’re going to get crap … down the road in execution.”