Thursday, December 19, 2013 by Jimmy Maas
Austin’s newly formed Municipal Civil Service Commission continued to work at answering a number of fundamental questions aimed at developing a set of operating rules at its meeting Tuesday night at City Hall.
Voters approved a civil service system for the City of Austin for most non-public safety employees in November 2012. Most public safety employees have their own civil service system.
The Civil Service Commission is charged with hearing and deciding cases in which a city employee has been discharged, suspended, demoted, denied a promotion or put on disciplinary probation. Its decisions will be final and binding, according to the commission’s bylaws.
Commission members say when trying to build a commission from scratch, there are always pitfalls and delays as the process goes along – especially when the group is establishing protocols and navigating employment laws. Initially, the biggest pitfall seemed to be finding a convenient time for the five commissioners to meet next.
The commission, which has met six times since July, has used these early gatherings to hash out a preliminary set of rules they might use in status hearings for an employee. The early draft of rules is cobbled from the city charter, current practices and precedents in other cities with similar commissions. As the commission goes along they are adding items to what they’re calling an “interest log.” The log is made up of sticking points in rules that will either need more clarification, discussion, alteration or perhaps need to be eliminated.
The biggest sticking point of the night was the question of “Who wins when no one wins?” The commission discussed what to do when there are cases where only four of five commissioners are available to hear cases, which could result in a two-two tie.
In an attempt to answer that question, Commissioner Kevin Russell pointed to another stipulation within the drafted rules that three commissioners must vote in favor of something for the commission to act on any motion. As it stands, that would also include the decision to change an employee’s status. A two-two vote would not meet that standard, so the status quo would be upheld. Presumably that would mean an employee’s status is still discharged or demoted, etc. Effectively, they said, a tie vote is a loss for that employee.
All five commissioners had some questions over whether the three-vote threshold was the best practice in employment cases. There were also concerns about where the burden of proof should be – on the city or the employee.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, representative Caitlin Brown offered the union’s take on the tie scenario, hoping for a rewrite of the rules to fall in favor of the employee. A tie vote would mean the city didn’t prove its case to the commission, she said, so the employee would be reinstated with back pay and benefits.
Going forward, the commission will next meet Jan. 7 where they will plan the calendar for future meeting dates. They’ll also see a compiled “interest log” with all rules that will need further work.
At some point in 2014 – but no one could say for certain– the commission will finalize its first draft of rules and present them to the Council and for public comment. Once the rules are adopted, commissioners will be able to begin hearing cases.
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