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Un-Civil Wars: Christie Administration Pushing for Sweeping Civil Service Changes

Rebuffed by Legislature, Christie goes for major regulatory changes through Civil Service Commission.

chris christie
Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen

Tired of waiting for the Democratic-controlled Legislature to send him a new civil service bill to replace the one he vetoed two years ago, Gov. Chris Christie is pushing sweeping changes through a Civil Service Commission he effectively controls.

Christie’s civil service overhaul is the latest in a series of high-profile battles with public employee unions that have defined his governorship and propelled him to national prominence. These have ranged from school vouchers and merit pay for teachers to a landmark pension and health benefits bill that not only forced public employees to pay more, but also eliminated the right of unions to bargain on health benefits for four years.

The Christie administration's proposed civil service regulation would effectively reduce and consolidate the number of job titles by eliminating competitive examinations for promotions within broad "job bands," giving managers greater flexibility in deciding which employees to promote.

Christie asserts that stripping away civil service restrictions will make government more efficient and thereby enable local governments to lower property taxes. But union officials say the proposed changes will substitute patronage and favoritism for merit in the promotional process.

“This latest Christie scheme to gut civil service will create more patronage and corruption at all levels by putting every single advancement at the mercy of political pressure,” Hetty Rosenstein, New Jersey area director for the Communications Workers of America, said yesterday.

“The whole point of the Civil Service system is to prevent managerial decisions based on politics,” said Adrienne Eaton, chair of Rutgers University’s Labor Studies and Employment Relations Department and also president of Rutgers’ American Federation of Teachers/American Association of University Professors chapter. “This would undermine that principle.”

Rosenstein said members of CWA, the state government's largest union, will be setting up lunchtime picket lines at the Civil Service Commission and 15 other state and local government agencies in 11 cities today to protest what she called the most radical challenge to the civil service merit system in a half-century.

Peter J. Lyden III, spokesman for the Civil Service Commission, declined to discuss the merits of the proposed 96-page regulation, which was the subject of a contentious April 10 hearing that drew more than 100 union protesters and criticism from a slew of Democratic legislators.

“For now, we don’t have anything to say on it,” Lyden said. “We’re still taking comments on it. May 17 is when the comments period closes. It will come up for vote at a subsequent Civil Service Commission meeting.”

No Progress for Governor

Christie has managed to implement most of the initiatives in the “property tax toolkit” he rolled out at the beginning of his administration, but he has been stymied in his efforts to change the civil service rules that regulate the hiring, promotion, and dismissal of employees in state government, county governments, and 193 municipalities that include most of New Jersey’s population.

“The time for real reform of civil service is overdue,” Christie declared more than two years ago in February 2011, when he vetoed a Democratic-sponsored Civil Service bill he denounced as “tepid, ineffective, and meaningless.”

The Democratic bill would have set up a separate bipartisan commission to consolidate job titles, which Christie criticized as an unnecessary new layer of bureaucracy because he believes the existing Civil Service Commission already has that power.

Most important to Christie, the Democratic bill did not include a provision allowing municipalities to drop out of civil service altogether by voter referendum that was the centerpiece of Christie's plan.

In March, Christie decided he was willing to wait no longer.

New Jersey’s Civil Service Commission does not have the authority to overturn current law and give municipalities the ability to opt out of Civil Service.

But the Civil Service Commission can adopt regulations to change the way the civil service system is administered, and that's what the commission is poised to do.

Union leaders privately concede that their best hope for beating back Christie's civil service plan may lie in a court challenge to the Civil Service Commission's authority to make such sweeping fundamental changes to the merit system.

That's because in this latest battle between Christie and the unions, Christie clearly holds the upper hand, and union leaders know it.

First, the Civil Service Commission is made up entirely of Christie appointees:

  • Chairman Robert Czech, who formerly served as county administrator in Republican-controlled Monmouth County;

  • Commissioner Richard E. Williams, who served 23 years as county administrator in the GOP bastion of Somerset County;

  • Commissioner Thomas Perna, the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Quadriserv Inc., "a privately held company that has created a centrally cleared marketplace for securities-lending transaction," according to the Civil Service Commission website.

  • Commissioner Robert E. Brenner, a Somerville lawyer who specializes in auto insurance and personal injury cases.

No Voice for Labor

There are no labor representatives on the commission, which has one vacancy and needs just three votes to adopt the new "job-banding" regulation. Given the makeup of the commission, even union leaders privately concede Christie will have the votes he needs to make it happen.

Second, even if the Democratic-controlled Legislature passed a bill overturning the Civil Service Commission's new regulation, Christie can simply override the veto and count on the Senate and Assembly Republican minority caucus to support him, denying the Democrats the two-thirds majority they would need for an override.

Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), Christie's Democratic challenger in the governor's race, said the Christie administration's decision to schedule just one public hearing April 10, "during the middle of the day when the people impacted are most likely to be unable to attend, shows his administration's disregard for working families."

“Promotions and advancements should not be subject to the political pressures," Buono declared in a statement issued on the day of the hearing, and she has repeated that criticism at subsequent appearances with public employee unions who have been among her most vocal supporters.

Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex), who faces a tough challenge in her Mercer/Middlesex 14th District from former GOP Sen. Peter Inverso, denounced Christie's use of the Civil Service Commission's regulatory process as an end-run around the Legislature that will inject political patronage and personal favoritism into the promotional process.

Greenstein, Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson-Coleman (D-Mercer), who was named Sunday to chair the Buono campaign, and Greenstein's Assembly district-mates, Wayne DeAngelo, a Carpenters Union official, and Dan Benson (both D-Mercer) have been the most vocal legislative critics of the civil service plan. All represent Mercer-dominated districts that have the largest concentrations of state and local government workers in New Jersey.

The Silent Treatment

Most Democratic legislators have been silent on the Civil Service Commission proposal, which undoubtedly reflects the fact that all 120 seats in the Legislature are up for election in November. Further, while public employee unions are opposed to the Christie measure, the New Jersey State League of Municipalities has been outspoken in its support for Civil Service reform.

League President James Anzaldi set out the municipalities' position back in 2010 when he told the Senate Budget Committee that "governments need to become leaner, more streamlined, and more flexible, if they are going to be able to continue providing services that the public has come to expect. The current system under the civil service rules makes this almost impossible."

"The present civil service rules and regulations make it extremely difficult for a public manager to terminate nonproductive employees. It is even more difficult to reward productive employees, to recruit the best qualified candidates. or cross-train personnel to meet community needs," said Anzaldi, who is the mayor of Clifton.

In addition to affecting promotions, the Civil Service Commission's proposed replacement of multiple job titles with a single broad "job band" would limit employee rights to "bump" into other jobs during layoffs based on seniority. Government officials complain that current "bumping rights" lead to widespread employee dislocations during layoffs, with three to five employees changing jobs for every job cut.

The new rules apparently would have little impact on hiring, but the breadth of the regulatory change, if upheld by the courts, would provide precedent for a similar overhaul of civil service hiring.

It is the conflict between the desire of employers for greater management flexibility and the desire of employees and the unions who represent them for protections against arbitrary employer decisions that underlies the conflict over civil service reform.

Like civil service systems in many states, New Jersey's civil service system was modeled after the federal system adopted in the early 1880s to reduce patronage in government hiring after President James Garfield was assassinated by a disgruntled office-seeker, Charles Guiteau.

Civil Service was a popular reform. Theodore Roosevelt made his early political reputation as a civil service commissioner in New York.

Civil service initiatives were a staple reform of the Progresive Generation reformers whose support propelled New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson to the White House 100 years ago.

In recent decades, however, some government reformers have argued that civil service rules need to be relaxed, and that union contracts now provide many of the protections that civil service was created to provide.

Major civil service reforms that included proposed changes in hiring, promotion, and dismissal protections were pushed by both Democratic Gov. James J. Florio and Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman in the 1990s, but were abandoned under intense union pressure.

If adopted, the new rules would represent a major overhaul of New Jersey's civil service system, and yet another major victory for Christie in his ongoing battle with the public employee unions.

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