Civil service protections for St. Paul employees date back to 1914. The original impetus was to wipe out Boss Tweed-style patronage appointments in municipal posts. Government reformers, weary of favoritism, wanted to make sure that city jobs would be filled by competent bureaucrats rather than politically connected stooges.
Over the last year, St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly's administration has been systematically eliminating these protections. The first battle came last year when the city's electrical workers agreed--by a one-vote margin--to accept a contract that stripped them of their civil service protections, which guarantee promotion and hiring based on seniority. In return, the electricians got a 14 percent raise. Since then, other building trades, such as the cement masons and bricklayers, have conceded similar changes in their labor contracts with the city.
"We're going to go after all of the trades groups," acknowledges Angela Nalezny, the city's director of human resources. "That's been our goal."
But many municipal employees and elected officials are expressing apprehension that the changes will open the door to a new era of political patronage, whereby the mayor could place his handpicked cronies in high-paying municipal jobs. Opponents further fear that the mayor's office won't stop with the trade unions, but will soon be seeking similar concessions from firefighters, clerical workers, and all other municipal employees.
"I'm concerned about returning to a system of government that was discredited 100 years ago because of its inefficiencies and corruption," says Greg Johnson, a veteran St. Paul building inspector and a member of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, Local 87, which is currently negotiating a new labor contract with the city.
Ward Two City Council member Dave Thune expresses particular concern that inspectors--who are responsible for making sure city buildings are structurally safe--will be chosen by the mayor. "Probably the last job in the world that you want to be a political appointment is building inspectors," says Thune.
Earlier this month, Thune introduced a resolution opposing attempts to strip employees of civil service protections. The measure was adopted by the City Council by a 6-1 vote. (Fifth Ward council member Lee Helgen was the sole dissenter.) While the resolution carries no legal weight, it puts both the mayor's office and unions on notice that the council doesn't agree with the changes to labor contracts. Notably, the City Council must approve all labor contracts negotiated by the city.
Human resources director Nalezny maintains that the administration's efforts to remove civil service protections have nothing to do with patronage appointments, but rather are aimed at hiring top-notch employees. She notes that under the current rules, if an existing city employee passes a skills test required for an open position, they must be given the job without consideration of outside candidates. "It kind of flies in the face of good human resource management," she argues. "You should hire the best person for the job."
And Nalezny believes that the civil service rules have hindered the city's ability to diversify its workforce because minorities and women have a difficult time obtaining anything other than entry-level positions. "I think it's unfair to say that persons of color can only come through the lower ranks," she says.
Proponents of civil service rules, however, doubt this is the city's motive. Robin Madsen, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 1842, says that the way to diversify the workforce is through targeted recruitment and special training programs, not by gutting employee protections. "The unions are ready, willing, and able to work with the city to attract and retain a diverse workforce without eliminating the civil service rules," Madsen insists.
Thune believes that the rules should remain in place for the exact same reason they were adopted almost a century ago--to eliminate cronyism. "I really do believe in civil service as kind of the great equalizer," he says, "to make sure that we don't have patronage in civil service."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.