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Questions remain about civil service charter amendment

Friday, August 17, 2012 by Charles Boisseau

On Aug. 2, members of the Austin City Council unanimously agreed to place a charter amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot that asks voters to decide whether to create a potentially costly civil service system to cover thousands of the city’s rank-and-file employees.


Since Council approved the measure without any comments, the vote left unanswered a host of important questions, including those about how much a switch to a civil service system might cost.


Council Member Laura Morrison told In Fact Daily that in hindsight it was a mistake to not open public discussion for the proposed ordinance. “I, in retrospect, definitely should have pulled it (for discussion by Council members),” said Morrison, who sponsored the ordinance, which would change the city charter to provide for a civil service classification system for employees. “And I regret that.”


Morrison indicated discussing the proposal in an open City Council meeting with city staff would have been beneficial and would have helped to inform the citizenry. Instead, come November, voters will simply be asked to vote “yes” or “no” on a one-sentence proposition: “Shall the city charter be amended to provide a civil service system for most city employees who are not already covered by a state civil service statute?”


Explaining why there was no discussion, Morrison referred to the “certain element of chaos” of getting ready for the Council meeting and deciding what should be pulled for discussion. Council Member Mike Martinez, who cosponsored the ordinance, failed to return calls for comment. The other cosponsor, Council Member  Bill Spelman, was unavailable.


Morrison said she sponsored the ordinance to create a “just cause” environment for disciplining and removing employees as opposed to the current “at will” system that allows city managers more discretion. “The real priority for me is about just cause,” Morrison said, “and for the AFSCME people it was the same.”


Greg Powell, business manager of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1624, wrote in an email sent Aug. 8 that he declined to speak with In Fact Daily after a story we ran rankled the union. (See In Fact Daily, July 31, 2012.) “We are not interested in participating in any follow-up story only to give you another opportunity to dig up and include the kind of tripe you gleaned from Governing magazine in your original story,” Powell wrote. “If that is how you are going to fill in the blanks in your stories and otherwise editorialize we are not interested.”


AFSCME represents about 15 percent of the city’s 10,876 employees. Roughly 8,270 are regular employees that presumably would fall under civil service rules if the proposed charter amendment passes; the remainders are police officers and firefighters who already have civil service.


In a July 27 memo to Council members, City Manager Marc Ott estimated the first-year transition to a civil service system would cost $591,000 to $741,000 plus “an initial recurring annual cost thereafter between $31.5 million to $82.4 million.”


Moreover, Ott wrote that the City already has a “well-designed and effective personnel system,” one that has resulted in low employee turnover and high employee satisfaction. “We’re not sure what the proposal is intended to ‘fix,’” Ott wrote Council members.


City spokesperson Reyne Telles said the city manager declined to respond to questions about the charter amendment now that Council members have ruled on the proposal that will go to voters. Asked if the City Manager’s office would provide an updated cost estimate on the final ordinance approved by Council, Telles said, “there’s no estimate.” The manager’s office has not been asked by a Council member to come up with one, he said.


Morrison said the initial cost estimate provided by Ott covered a far more comprehensive civil service plan than the one City Council eventually passed.


Morrison didn’t have a specific estimate for the cost to implement the ordinance passed by Council. “I think we had an estimate of a couple hundred thousand or something like that,” she said. But that was before the ordinance was changed to say the five members of the proposed Civil Service Commission “may” be paid. Morrison said it was her contention that the commission, at least initially, should be made up of unpaid part-time volunteers, akin to the dozens of volunteer-run city boards and commissions.


The only other cities in Texas to implement a civil service system for non-public safety personnel are: Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and El Paso.


“It’s very uncommon,” Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, said of providing civil service to rank-and-file employees. Sandlin said he was unqualified to comment on the pros and cons such a system because it is so rare in Texas.


About 200 Texas cities, including Austin, have adopted civil service policies for its police and fire departments. Home-rule cities, such as Austin and most Texas cities with more than 5,000 people, have independent charters allowing them far more powers to, for example, annex nearby areas and implement wider ranging ordinances, including choosing to install a civil service classification system for employees.



Contact Charles Boisseau at or (512) 431-2269 with comments and tips.

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