by Dan Richardson

Setting the stage for what could be a central effort of his administration, Spokane Mayor John Powers announced last week his intent to study civil service with an eye toward reforming it.

"I think it's time we took a look at it," said Powers last week while introducing a seven-person task force to study Civil Service. Powers cast the task force as a way to make city government more responsive and trim. "Everything we do is an effort to be as efficient... in our organization as possible."

Civil Service is an independent city department designed decades ago to reduce political patronage and cronyism in public employment. Civil Service officials, under the direction of an independent volunteer commission, write job descriptions for the approximately 2,000 City Hall workers (except for management) and test new job applicants.

Civil Service officials say they're as necessary as ever, but City Hall administrators say the department is a bureaucratic dinosaur.

To Harvey Harden, director of the seven-person Civil Service office, Powers' pursuit of efficiency sounds like eliminating employee protections.

"They want a token Civil Service commission that's not independent," says Harden. "They can't manipulate the system because they don't control me and they don't control the Civil Service commission, but they would like to."

The mayor and his managers are frustrated with what they describe as a lumbering Civil Service, unresponsive to administration overtures, mired in its own interests. While crafting this year's city budget, Powers proposed cutting Civil Service's funding by one-quarter, although the City Council cushioned the blow by about half. City Administrator Jack Lynch -- the manager of the city's managers -- is one of the hawks, those who think Civil Service needs eliminating, not reforming.

"They have become a bigger problem than the problems they were empanelled to avoid," says Lynch. Until a year ago, Lynch was chief executive of combined city-county government in Butte, Mont., with 17 public employee unions, but no civil service -- "and it worked much more efficiently" than managing labor in Spokane, with just nine union bargaining units.

Civil Service tests individuals who want to work for the city, administering tests for the city's 315 different job classifications every two years. That places job applicants on an eligibility list that goes to city managers when they need to hire someone. So when a city department needs to make a new hire, the boss gets a list of acceptable applicants, usually about five people, according to Lynch. None seem right? Too bad.

That alleged inflexibility, and the potential loss of talented applicants who might not wait many months to take a work test, is why Powers is calling for continual testing. Harden calls that idea "ludicrous" and expensive, though he does think that, with some more money, Civil Service can and should test more often -- say, once a year.

Then there are the work rules, a list negotiated a year ago by a committee of labor and management that's up to the Civil Service Commission to adopt. Harden says the commissioners will likely look at the rules soon, but that the agency is "right on track" for its designated five-year work rule revision. To Lynch, that's another example of foot-dragging.

"When I'm talking about delays, I'm talking years, for things that could have been done in weeks," he says.

Civil service exists around the region in varying forms. Spokane County's civil service handles only its Sheriff's Department hiring and promotions, and has two staff members. Washington state legislators recently passed a bill reforming state civil service. That reform appears to have some give-and-take, granting collective bargaining rights to public employees, according to the legislation, while allowing public agencies to begin contracting with private companies, individuals or nonprofit groups to provide services usually handled by state employees. And that, charges Harden, is where city administrators want to end up.

"Continuous testing is a smokescreen for privatization," says Harden. They want to contract out public jobs to private companies, and first need to eliminate Civil Service, he says.

Civil Service is as vital as ever, according to Harden. It's a check on the impulse of powerful officials to hire and promote friends, as political opponents have charged Powers with doing in filling his newly created mayoral staff.

"Otherwise," says Harden, "we know who's going to get the jobs: Those who kick into the campaign."

The fate of Spokane's Civil Service is up niether to Harden nor to Lynch, neither to the mayor nor to the Civil Service Commission. It's in the hands first of the newly appointed task force, headed by former Spokane Mayor Jack Geraghty. Because it was created under the city's charter, how or if Civil Service is reformed is ultimately up to voters.

"We just want to kind of open it up and take a look at everything," says Geraghty. "There's no effort in this review committee to do away with Civil Service... All we're looking at is if there's a way it can be modernized."

For Geraghty, it's a second shot at the issue. As mayor, the Community Partners -- a group of citizens studying the city charter for ways to improve it -- identified Civil Service as an area that could be reformed. The group's recommendations never went before voters, however -- perhaps a victory for Civil Service.

And Geraghty says there will always be some tension between management and Civil Service, and that during his tenure, Civil Service was "unwieldy." The employment lists that managers received often had names of people tested a couple of years ago, many of whom had moved on in the meantime, he says. Asked how a city can run effectively if that's the case, Geraghty chuckles: "Now you get it."

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