Asbury Park Press

Should Towns Be Allowed To Opt Out Of Civil Service? No

Maintain firewall guarding against patronage hiring

Asbury Park Press — Sunday, June 27, 2010

By EVELYN LIEBMAN

Imagine if every time a newly elected mayor, county executive or governor was elected, he or she could snap their fingers, get rid of all of the people providing public services and hire only their political friends.

People would be justified in being up in arms, right? Well, this dangerous scenario has happened in New Jersey before, and now it could happen again. As part of Gov. Chris Christie's proposed "tool kit" to reduce property taxes, he wants to let towns and counties eliminate New Jersey's civil service system and gut civil service rights and protections in state and local government.

Civil service, a system that was put in place in response to widespread corruption and patronage scandals throughout every layer of government, was adopted to ensure fair employment practices, to make certain public jobs were filled by qualified people and that the delivery of vital public services was protected from politicians who would hand these jobs out as favors to their campaign supporters and big-money donors. Eliminating government corruption was so important that framers included the principles of merit, fitness and testing into the 1947 state constitution.

Those calling for the demise of civil service claim it is a costly antique and that its elimination will save money. Yet there are no facts or figures to support these assertions. Nor do proponents account for the costs of patronage and corruption — just add up the bribes, prosecutions, prison terms, poor and inefficient delivery of services and overpriced, politically connected and often wasteful contracts. And believing that history will not repeat itself is like believing that we no longer need to keep an eye on the big banks that almost sunk our economy or companies such as BP that may yet destroy our Gulf Coast.

Here's how civil service actually works: Job applicants have to apply for positions through a neutral, nonpolitical system. They take tests to be hired, they must pass tests to be promoted and there are rules about who can be appointed. For example, veterans of armed conflicts get preference in hiring for entry-level jobs and can't be bypassed for promotion except by another veteran or disabled veteran. Christie's plan would eliminate this required preference for our veterans.

Layoffs can only be conducted for reasons of "economy or efficiency." Layoffs cannot be for "bad faith," — i.e., to eliminate a political adversary or for reasons of discrimination.

Civil service also is a transparent and accountable system. All job openings have to be posted, all appointments have to be announced and the record of all firings is public. Precisely because it is nonpolitical, civil service has become an important gateway to the middle class and has led to enormous diversity of employment opportunity, especially in the civilian ranks. The system employs workers of every race, creed, color and religion including many women, people with disabilities, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers and those who have been able to rise through an examination system in a way they never could have through a less-objective, generally old-boy, backroom spoils system.

New Jersey got a peek into what a "tool kit" employment system might look like when Christie failed to reappoint Supreme Court Justice John Wallace, who has served New Jersey with distinction. Rather than reappoint a judge who has demonstrated a fine, fair ability to do the job, Christie chose to replace him with someone more in keeping with his political ideology.

New Jersey residents pay for, want and use quality public services. Let's reject the tool kit and maintain the firewall civil service provides between these services and the ravages of patronage and corruption.

Evelyn Liebman is the director of organizing and advocacy for New Jersey Citizen Action, the state's largest independent citizen watchdog coalition.

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