Clash Over Changes in Civil Service Rules Really Isn’t Civil at All

Joe Tyrrell | May 12, 2014 | More Issues
Christie-appointed panel ignores Legislature’s vote to keep anti-patronage protections, eases rules for job promotions

Credit: Amanda Brown
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto
When Gov. Chris Christie called Democrats’ bluff on a key labor issue last week – as the state Civil Service Commission followed through on its promise to relax promotion standards for most state jobs — the only surprise was that opponents of the changes were not ready with a coordinated response.

But they hope to agree this week on a counter-strategy to undo the unilateral moves by the Christie-appointed commission, which thumbed its collective nose at organized labor and Democratic legislators with its vote on Wednesday.

The commission’s action was the latest move in a cat-and-mouse game that began early last year between the governor, who is seeking more freedom for managers to reassign workers, and labor unions trying to preserve protections against political patronage in state jobs.

Traditionally, Civil Service job applicants and employees have been required to pass tests to be hired or to advance.

As part of a package first presented early last year to streamline regulations, the commission proposed lowering the requirements by grouping job classes into larger “bands,” allowing managers to shift some workers around without passing qualifying tests for their new positions.

In January, both chambers passed concurrent resolutions establishing the Legislature’s stance that the commission’s plan would violate the law and the state constitution.

Acting as though those votes never happened, the commission adopted the governor’s plan with some modest changes. The new version clarifies that the rules apply to state, not municipal, employees, exempts law-enforcement and public-safety positions, and states its intent to preserve a job preference for veterans. The commission also gave dissatisfied employees the right to appeal, albeit to the commission.

Those amendments would not affect the majority of the state’s Civil Service workers, who still would work with less job security and a more fluid promotion system under the new regulations.

The commission contends that workers could benefit from speedier promotions and opportunities to learn new skills.

Democrats and labor leaders responded with outrage, but their opinions differed when they were asked what should be done.

New Jersey AFL-CIO President Charles Wowkanech said the commission action “opens the door to the type of cronyism that Civil Service was created to eliminate in the first place.” He called on the Legislature to vote again, although without specifying why the commission would not again circumvent it.

“The Legislature’s position on this must be respected, and the Assembly will be looking into this further and weighing its options on how to respond,” said Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson).

Assemblywoman Linder Stender (D-Union), who sponsored her chamber’s resolution “to invalidate this attempt to destroy Civil Service,” added it is uncertain how the commission’s response “could be considered legal.”

“We are currently evaluating all of our options, including filing an injunction if necessary,” said state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester). “But first, I encourage the Office of Administrative Law to not accept the rule change.”

In January, Seth Hahn, state political and legislative director for the Communications Workers of America, declared the legislative votes would “end the executive’s ability to enact any job banding through regulation.” He found Wednesday’s vote “galling.”

“It is inconceivable that the Christie Administration is granting itself permission to promote anyone it wants, while getting rid of oversight and objective standards for fairness,” Hahn said in a press release.

Chief among those who disagreed was commission Chairman Robert Czech, a former administrator of Monmouth County, the political base of Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno.

Czech branded the legislative votes “contrary to the constitutional process,” because the commission had amended the original plan.

The courts have used “job banding” for support jobs since 1998, so the commission’s rationale includes “its success at Judiciary,” Czech said. The commission also tried a pilot project in which six employees were promoted in three months instead of a usual six or more, he said.

“Merit and fitness are at the core of this banding rule and thereby consistent with the constitution and statutes,” Czech said.

“The only thing surprising about the objections from critics is how uninformed they are,” said Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts, adding, “They are taking the opportunity to pander to the public employee union special interests who just so happen to be their political patrons.”

In contrast, Stender’s January resolution called the regulatory changes “contrary to the spirit, intent, and plain meaning of the provision in the New Jersey Constitution that requires that promotions be based on merit and fitness to be ascertained, as far as practicable, by examination.”

After hearings held in the spring 2013 generated heated opposition, the commission sat on the idea until just before Christmas of that year. Then, on short notice, it approved the slightly revised plan. The subsequent legislative resolutions were had no effect because they did not give weight to the amendments, according to Czech.

As constituted by Christie, one of the commission’s five seats is vacant.

Besides Czech, the current members are Richard Williams, former administrator of Somerset County, the lone New Jersey county that does not take part in Civil Service; Thomas J. Perna, a former bank executive with Quadriserv Inc. a privately-held company that has created a centrally-cleared marketplace for securities-lending transactions, and Robert E. Brenner, a Somerville personal injury and labor lawyer.

After taking the commission post in 2012, Czech established a task force that eliminated 2,400 “obsolete or redundant” job titles in state and local governments. He portrayed the new regulations as another way to streamline government management, with the implication that easier employee transfers might save money.

But state Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen) found some of the commission’s explanations glib, and inattentive to the potential for increased patronage.

“You can say that you’re preserving the preference for veterans, but if you do away with the tests where the preference is applied, how are you actually tracking that?” he asked. “It’s cover, saying that you want to preserve the preference while putting anyone you want into a job.”

Some job consolidations probably make sense, Gordon said, “but they should have sat down with the employee bargaining units and discussed the situations rather than making changes on their own with a lack of transparency,” Gordon said.

Still, Gordon acknowledged that horse is already out the barn door in the aftermath of Christie’s signature political triumph — getting the Democratic leadership to spite their union base by pushing through pension reductions without collective bargaining,

In recent weeks Christie has returned to his pre-Bridgegate posture, again taking aim at pensions, recalculating requirements in order to lower pension payments and calling for more union concessions.