Friday, January 20, 2006

(Un)civil Service

We haven't exhausted what should be discussed from this years city council meetings. One very contentious issue was on the agenda of both council meetings: Appointment of a new Civil Service commissioner. The Mayor nominated Stephen Mild, a member of the Tom Green County Sheriff's department, to fill the position. This was opposed strongly by the Police Chief and various members of the department and was eventually voted down 5 to 2.

There were two problems. First, the Chief and officers that spoke were concerned about apparent conflict of interest of having an active member of one public safety agency overseeing the promotion system and disciplinary inspections of another local agency.

Next, there is the problem of the DeSoto OAG opinion. Their city charter is worded similarly to ours. There is conflicting language where the Mayor is given the title of Chief Executive, but the city manager is given the job of doing all the managing of the city and appointing and removing officers and employees of the city. The language is not identical between the two charters, but close enough that it needs to be clarified so that there is no possible confusion about who should be doing the appointing. The mayor and the city manager both said that the city manager does not wish to appoint the commissioners, but that really has no affect on what the attorney generals opinion will be. It may be that this needs to be addressed when the city's charter is reviewed and the proper language put before the voters for approval.

The most important issue, though, is who should be appointed to the civil service commission. None of the parties involve had any doubts about the sincerity and integrity of Stephan Mild. The problem goes to the heart of why we have civil service at all. In the early part of our nations history, public officials were appointed and hired by what is called patronage, or more descriptively: the spoils system. There were attempts to clean up the system, especially after the scandal ridden administration of Grant. There was little real progress made until President Garfield was assassinated by a disgruntled office seeker. After that, merit systems with safeguards to prevent undue outside influence were eventually implemented across the country. San Angelo adopted its current civil service system in 1948. (Check here for more detailed history)

Texas civil service law already forbids appointing people who have been a public official within the last three years to the commission. Legally a sheriff's deputy, even a very senior one, is probably not a public official but I wouldn't want to bet on the outcome if that distinction went before a judge. The reality, though, is that it is a bad precedent to have public officers involved in the civil service. The appearance of outside influence, whether real or imagined, can only hurt. When the agencies have to work together as closely as the Sheriff and police department must, the appearance can overwhelm reality, and lead to friction where it can do significant damage.

The Mayor's objective of appointing someone with experience in both law enforcement and fire fighting is commendable. I support that objective. Still, he must find a qualified individual that will not set a bad precedent, and will not have any apparent conflicts of interest. When Stephen Mild retires from the Sheriff's department, I would support his appointment with no reservations, and I imagine the police and fire departments would do the same. Until then, we need someone else for the civil service commission.

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