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Debate continues over CSC’s restructuring

The City Council partially passed an ordinance modifying the structure of the city’s Civil Service Commission, leaving its more controversial aspects for further debate.

During its Wednesday’s meeting, the council discussed an ordinance that dissolves the current CSC and implements a number of modifications to the commission’s structure.

The ordinance attempts to improve upon the former commission in order to avoid previous issues experienced over the past few months pertaining to the state’s Open Public Meetings Act — issues that resulted in the resignation of all three commission members.

The first two of the three sections included in the ordinance did not raise much concern and passed easily. The first modified the commission by raising the number of commissioners from three to five members, staggering their terms and eliminating the three-year time constraint on the requirement for residency.

The second upheld that any rules and regulations originating from the currently vacant commission are considered in effect until the next commission is in place to deal with them.

The third section, which involves the state requirement that the CSC remain independent from the city, was tabled until the council discusses the issue during a work study session.

The urgent need for a commission

The commission oversees a number of aspects relating to public safety employees of the city, including personnel issues, examinations for entry-level police candidates, promotions and employee discipline.

“The time that it takes you all to select people for committees and commissions is lengthy,” said City Manger Brenda Bauer to the council. “For every day that goes by that we are not able to put out an advertisement, I think the city is at risk…I think it is imperative that we move quickly.”

Immediately upon its discussion, council member Bob Scales suggested that the council vote on the more essential sections of the ordinance — the first two — in order to begin advertising for new commissioners.

“Our legal liability rests not with this ordinance, but with not having a civil service commission…” Scales said. “If any issue comes up that requires a civil service commission and we do not have one, we will be liable.”

Both Scales, and council member Barry Peters further emphasized the urgency to fill the CSC as soon as possible as the city is required by law to have one, and should any issues arise with the police department that normally fall to the commission, there is currently no one to deal with them.

The city currently is advertising to fill five civil service commission member spots.

An independent commission

Section three of the ordinance raised concern with some residents over the independence of the commission from the city, which is required by law. It specifically pertains to the position of the commission’s secretary/chief examiner (S/CE).

The issue of placing a city employee as the S/CE was raised earlier this month in a letter to the previous CSC members from Scott Weiss, president of the police guild, stating that such a person should be free of bias or prejudice.

During time for public comment Wednesday, former secretary/chief examiner Kim Hendrickson addressed the council objecting to a number of aspects she felt threatened the independence of the commission, including section three.

Under the ordinance, the city manager would “designate a member of the paid staff of the city acceptable to the civil service commission” as a means of selecting a secretary/chief examiner.

“It’s bad public policy,” Hendrickson said. “It leaves us extremely open to lawsuits.”

The S/CE’s responsibilities include managing all records and reports, and keeping a record of any examinations the commission undertakes. They are also subject to any other duties the commission requires. As proposed in the ordinance, the duties are to be performed “as the commission, in consultation with the city manager, may prescribe.”

City Manager Brenda Bauer views the position of the secretary/chief examiner as minimal in influence and therefore does not carry any threat toward the separation of the commission and the city.

“The secretary/chief examiner is not a decision-maker, rather, he/she is an administrative staff person providing human resource services to the commission,” said Bauer in an email to the Review. “The Civil Service Commissioners are the independent appointed officials who make all substantive decisions.”

Bauer noted 15 other Washington cities where the S/CE position is held by either a city human resources official or a police department staff member, and is not a contracted position.

“Part of the purpose of chapter 41.12 RCW (which covers civil service commissions and the role of a secretary/chief examiner) is to ensure that an independent body protects police department employees from potential prejudices of their employer,” said Assistant Attorney General Tim Ford in a statement to the Review not meant to represent any legal conclusions.

Ford recalled a similar situation in a 2004 case involving the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild and the City of Seattle which touched upon such issues of independence. The court found that the city’s director of personnel could not act in the role of a civil service commission, yet such a position in the city could take on ministerial duties without weakening the ability to substantially carry out the intention of RCW 41.12.

“I don’t know whether the duties of the secretary-chief examiner are ministerial or mandatory,” Ford said. “I think that may be one relevant issue for consideration and there may be others, such as whether the independent role of the commission is reduced.”

The issue continues as the debate over how involved the city manager should be in the selection process of the S/CE. While a number of citizens at Wednesday’s meeting voiced their approval of a city employee taking on the duties of the S/CE, further concern over maintaining the commission’s independence was also heightened regarding the role of the city manager in selecting the candidate.

 

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