To: Mayor Lee Leffingwell and City Council
From: AFSCME Local 1624
RE: AFSCME Civil Service Charter Amendment
Despite the response from the City Manager’s office, AFSCME's Civil Service proposal was not intended to be a wholesale indictment of the current system, but rather an opportunity to improve the system and improvement is needed.
During our considerations to extend Civil Service protections to non-public safety COA employees, we sought guidance from various City Council members. The Council members and staff that we discussed this matter with expressed overall support for this initiative, citing among the many potential benefits of this proposal:
* This would shift the oversight and authority into the critical decisions affecting COA employees' livelihood.
* There is nothing wrong with ensuring accountability on employees and management.
*This proposal helps level the playing field between public safety and civilian employees.
* Civil Service is a viable system in every other major city in Texas and Austin should be no exception.
We were encouraged to bring forth a Charter Amendment proposal for Council's consideration which ultimately would be decided by Austin voters. We did not immediately bring our proposal directly to the City Manager because we wanted to ensure initial support from City Council before moving forward.
We did bring our proposal to the City manager’s Office and told them we were prepared to discuss and modify as necessary the ordinance language. Rather than meet with us, the City Manager released a scathing report to the City Council denouncing our proposal.
We believe that the City Manger's response was a bad faith effort to radically exaggerate the costs of our proposal to undermine what we intended to accomplish with a Civil Service Commission, which most importantly was to secure “just cause” protections for City employees.
In a response to the several concerns raised by the City Manager, we issued a report to City Council which confronted the City Manager’s many concerns.
Among those items were:
Classification, Compensation and Cost Concerns
There is nothing in our proposal which would require the City to equalize pay within all job categories based on longevity. The current classification system, in fact, groups job titles into the same salary range and are adjusted to accommodate factors such as longevity, relevant work experience, Pay-for-Performance awards and market-based salary adjustments.
It borders on misrepresentation to assert that our proposal could cost the City between $31.5 and $82.4 million.
There already exists City HRD and LRO staff to effectively manage a Civil Service system. HRD staff currently process all grievances. These grievance packets would simply be referred to the Civil Service Commission rather than the current Hearings Officer and Grievance Panel. A Civil Service Commission would however, undoubtedly concern itself with the current system which has allowed among other inconsistencies the following egregious decisions:
* A system wherein the Director of HRD waives the minimum qualifications for a position at the request of a department director.
*A system in which certain individuals are placed in higher pay zones (or above the pay zone) than they would have otherwise qualified for if the pay procedures were indeed followed. This sidestepping of policy is then signed off by HRD staff who are entrusted to assure their "comprehensive policies and processes" are followed.
*A system which has allowed a candidate who was not among the top-ranked candidates, to be hired as an HR Manager, a system that allows that individual's employment verification to be performed by the same HRD Manager who is also named as the contact person for this individual's former employer verification and who also served on this individual's hiring panel.
* A system that allowed a departmental HR employee to open up the e-Career application system to allow an employee to add additional qualifications to secure a supervisor position. This led another applicant to file an EEOC complaint which resulted in a $250,000 settlement.
* A system that routinely allows high-level positions to be created and filled without a competitive process.
Hiring and Promotions
We specifically used the term "examination procedures" to allow flexibility beyond the use of standardized testing. The hiring procedure can include such elements as: standardized tests, practicums, competency evaluations and interviews, all of which are currently used in various, albeit inconsistent, configurations during the City's hiring processes. We do not intend to change the current practice of the City to produce job applicant eligibility lists which are conducted upon the closing of a job posting.
There is absolutely nothing in our proposal that would lead the City to only consider an applicant's experience gained within the City. The City certainly should consider an applicant's relevant experience, regardless of where it was acquired. The City also uses an applicant's and existing City employee's relevant experience to determine their proper pay zone within the salary range for any hiring, promotion, reclassification and market study implementation. This is a procedure we have long supported.
Our proposal does, however, subject these hiring and promotion decisions to a higher level of scrutiny, and thus accountability by an objective authority, the Civil Service Commission, which can further provide remedy, something lacking in the current system. Our proposal further confronts current City hiring and promotion practices and City management's drift towards more subjectivity being infused into these decisions. Our proposal allows for the use of several criterion in the hiring and promotion process. Regardless of the hiring procedure used, the final decision to hire or promote a candidate should bear up to scrutiny and be able to produce a rationale for these decisions.
Flexibility can be achieved, but it should not be done at the expense of accountability.
There is nothing in our proposal which takes the “responsibility and accountability for discipline and performance management out of the chain of command.” Indeed, our proposal elevates the responsibility and accountability incumbent upon management for these decisions. Management should not fear scrutiny of their decisions if they are based on sound principles and policies. The chain of command should indeed extend to the City Manager’s Office, thus providing every opportunity to resolve grievances. After such a thorough vetting of a grievance, City management should be confident their decision will bear up to the scrutiny of the Commission.
There is nothing more demoralizing for an employee who presents a legitimate grievance in the current system to a Hearings Officer or Grievance Panel, whose grievance is upheld after a fair and impartial hearing, only to have that decision overturned by the City Manager's Office. There is no rationale for that decision provided to the employee, only that the department's action is upheld.
The current grievance system has allowed ex parte discussions between departments and the City Manager's Office and the submission of documents and "facts" to the assigned ACM that were not produced during the hearing even though the procedure disallows this. In addition, high-level managers are seldom subjected to this grievance process for their disciplinary and performance transgressions. Instead they are quietly transferred to another department and assigned tasks (special projects) with diminished responsibilities while retaining their previous salaries.
This practice certainly contributes to Austin being the most managed city in the country, but not necessarily the best managed city.
These are life-altering decisions and they should be made based solely on the facts of the case as applied to policy, free from internal political considerations and maneuvers. We contend this oftentimes does not happen under the current system.
Apart from the consequences the employee suffers - a rightful promotion denied, an unpaid suspension for an infraction not specified in policy or a wrongful termination - it is also bad public policy.
Austin taxpayers have a rightful expectation that their tax dollars are being spent judiciously, that the best qualified talent is being hired and promoted into the positions delivering the services they rely upon, that their tax dollars and trust are being realized in City management decisions affecting the moral and well-being of the workforce. We believe Austin voters will agree with the concept of merit and fitness for duty at all levels of City government and that there should indeed be scrutiny and accountability.
Inherent in this is the notion that there should exist a "just cause" for adverse decisions. Continued reliance on archaic "at-will" doctrines, which allow for termination of employment - and by extension other employment-related decisions - for "bad cause" or "no cause" has no place in the public domain. An "at-will" employment philosophy fosters arbitrary and capricious decisions, prevents due accountability for bad decisions, squanders precious tax dollars, and leads to bad government.
We appreciate that the City Council has expressed full support for "just cause" principles.
The City manager's response was accurate in this regard; "the impact on operations and administration lies in the details of each system." Those details can be attended to throughout the process of developing our system, which can and should include input from the various stakeholders.
We stand prepared to articulate our full intent and work through any outstanding concerns which may emerge, most of which can be addressed in a deliberative manner as the Commission develops the specific rules and regulations of the system. As members of your union AFSCME, we ask you to stand with us and support a system that will greatly improve the functions at the City and create a more equitable system for all.