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Civil service rules hit ballot

Measure would let council make more employees at-will

Yes, it’s election time again, and at the end of April a ballot will arrive in voters’ mailboxes, asking them to wrestle with a package of four proposals that would change the way the city works. Of those four, depending on whom you ask, Measure 26-90 is either the most benevolent or the most dangerous. The proposal is a rather innocuous-sounding idea that, supporters say, aims to simplify workplace rules governing city employees and do all sorts of other good things, too. As Mayor Tom Potter said in a speech to the Lloyd District Community Association last week, it “streamlines and modernizes public-employee provisions to eliminate outdated, conflicting and confusing language.” But Potter’s summary left out the controversial part: The measure also would allow the City Council to increase the number of employees in city agencies who could be fired at will — without the customary public-employee protections that require proof of poor performance before termination. Supporters say this change will make city agencies more responsive to the elected officials who oversee them. But critics say it also would increase the potential for political patronage, cronyism and favoritism. As anyone who knows city employees can tell you, there’s already political influence and pressure inside city agencies. And some instances of perceived cronyism, patronage and favoritism, too. The question raised by Measure 26-90 is, How much is too much? Richard Beetle, business manager of Laborers’ Local 483, which represents 650 city employees, thinks the measure goes too far. “Right now we already have problems with managers not having the backbone to make decisions,” he said. “This is just going to exacerbate that. … We don’t want a situation where employees can’t even advocate for what they think is right without risking their jobs.” Few affected, supporters say The measure is the product of lengthy deliberations by a volunteer Charter Review Commission appointed by Mayor Tom Potter. David Wang, a lawyer who chaired the commission, said 26-90 is intended to recognize that certain employees already operate at a level that’s “in the political realm.” Wang argued that if an incoming elected leader wants to change bureau directors, that director should be able to replace their subordinates as well. “You don’t want to have somebody hanging on simply because they have civil service protections,” he said. Wang and others say the measure is intended to affect only a small number of employees, say 10 or 15, mainly deputy directors of bureaus. And they point out that employees could be made at-will only by a majority vote of the City Council. But “what the Charter Review Commission said and what the ballot measure does are two different things,” Commissioner Randy Leonard said. He said the language of the measure is overly broad, specifically the part that says employees potentially affected are those “with a major role in the formation of policy requiring exercise of independent judgment.” Amanda Fritz, who ran for City Council in 2004, agreed, saying that the way the measure is written, even a senior planner — upon whom the community relies for unbiased information and judgment about development and other issues — could be made at-will, and subject to political influence. Could it really affect senior planners? “I don’t know,” Wang said. “It’s really up to the City Council.” Protections are longstanding Robert Eisinger, chairman of the political science department at Lewis and Clark College, said civil service rules sprang up around the country starting a century or so ago as a result of the “progressive movement,” a good-government push that rose up to combat political corruption, cronyism and patronage. While he recognizes the need for civil service protections, Eisinger thinks a little flexibility is not a bad idea. But when the language of the ballot was read to him, Eisinger said, “That seems awfully vague.” He added that while it would be advantageous for directors and their immediate subordinates to be on the same page, “you don’t want everybody in lockstep … I can make the argument for (the measure) and I can make it against.” Pacific University political science professor Jim Moore is more pointed. The language, he said, is “wide-open” as to what city employees could be affected. Though he has not taken a position on this year’s measures, he is skeptical of this one, saying, “It seems like something that is designed to fix a problem that hasn’t been identified.” Asked what problem this measure would fix, Wang replied: “I’m not sure that that is a fair question. What we’re trying to do is modernize (civil service).” This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.