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Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Bill weakening Civil Service rules in Hillsborough appears dead

— A Tampa state senator appears to have blocked a bill that would have allowed Hillsborough County government agencies to opt out of Civil Service rules regarding recruiting, hiring and transferring county employees.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat, used a legislative maneuver to effectively kill the bill, which had been approved by the county commission and the Hillsborough legislative delegation.

Joyner, one of two delegation members to vote against the bill in December, said Civil Service is needed to ensure government workers are hired by merit, not by which political party or leader is in power.

“I believe Civil Service was created to hire qualified people, not people with connections,” Joyner said. “I think it goes back to when Civil Service was created.”

Joyner used a Senate rule that allows any member to request that a bill affecting that senator’s district be removed from the local calendar. That request was granted by the Senate leadership.

The state Legislature created Civil Service in the early 1950s as part of a nationwide movement to provide continuity in government workplaces by protecting workers from wholesale firings after new politicians took power.

But critics say the agency’s rules and regulations are archaic and burdensome. The bill Joyner blocked was hatched in a meeting last year attended by County Administrator Mike Merrill, Tax Collector Doug Belden and Circuit Court Clerk Pat Frank.

The three officials had grown increasingly frustrated by Civil Service regulations, which they complained stymied their efforts to put the best employees in the proper positions. Frank complained she had to get Civil Service approval when she wanted to give her employees a raise.

The bill would allow the 21 county agencies now served by Civil Service to opt out of regulations regarding screening, hiring and transferring employees. Civil Service would continue to hear employee appeals of dismissals, demotions or suspensions.

Belden, who followed events Monday and Tuesday via phone calls with local legislators, blamed the bill’s demise on Civil Service Director Dane Petersen. Belden said Petersen had injected racial politics into the issue by telling the NAACP and Joyner the bill would hurt minority hiring. Joyner is black.

“The best thing that can happen for Civil Service is for Dane Petersen to step down,” Belden said. “Leaders don’t try to divide people; they bring people together.”

Frank said Joyner had raised the issue of minorities being hurt by the bill when county leaders sought her support.

“She made it a racial issue, which it was not,” said Frank, a Democrat. “This is an issue of running efficient offices and being able to reward the employees sufficiently.”

But Joyner denied that her concerns were only for minorities who apply for county jobs. She pointed out that Civil Service rules apply to hiring and firing of mostly hourly workers, not higher-paid managers.

“I said I felt that the protection of workers, be they minorities or whatever, would be weakened dramatically if we abandoned the Civil Service system,” Joyner said.

Since the county commission approved backing the local bill last fall, Petersen has been on a one-man lobbying crusade to preserve Civil Service. He said minorities were only one group he contacted to explain how Civil Service benefits local government. Others included the heads of the 21 agencies under the Civil Service umbrella, elected officials, county employees and unions, such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

None of those groups were asked to weigh in as county leaders pushed ahead with the legislation, Petersen said. Nor was Petersen or any of his staff consulted on what changes should be made to the agency.

“A lot of times when there is a government reform at the local level there is an opportunity for citizens to participate,” Petersen said. “That kind of thing simply didn’t happen.”

Petersen said after the legislative session ends this week he intends to reach out to all the agencies under Civil Service and see how his organization can serve them better. He has an ally in Joyner, who said county officials should sit down with Civil Service and discuss how to make the agency better.

“At the end of the day, workers will have protection and these agencies will have in place what is necessary to have Civil Service be maximally effective in this area,” she said.

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