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Sue Carlton: How Tallahassee turned boring bill into high drama

In a legislative session that brought us laws against disciplining kids for playing with pretend guns and encouraging Floridians to fire warning shots, a little bill out of Hillsborough County had to be the most boring and bureaucratic of the bunch.

This particularly dry legislation would allow government agencies, including the tax collector, court clerk and Sheriff's Office, to opt out of using the Civil Service Board when hiring employees and doing other human resources-type functions.

Wait, don't fall asleep yet! It gets better, with a dramatic political power play or two and also a shot at some sensible law.

I know, it's Tallahassee. But it can happen.

No question, the 63-year-old Civil Service's original purpose was noble: protect rank-and-file government workers from political patronage hirings and firings by having uniform standards — potentially an issue when the bosses are elected. Proponents say it can safeguard minority employees in particular.

But more recently, some local elected officials and other bosses grumbled that the Hillsborough Civil Service agency — one of the few fully functioning left in the state, by the way — had become but another layer of cumbersome bureaucracy. Rigid, they said. A hindrance to hiring the best and brightest. A time and money suck. When the subject of race came up, they pointed to their offices' strong records for hiring minority employees.

So here was the plan: Civil Service would keep handling grievances and reviewing suspensions and firings — valuable protections for workers. But government agencies could opt out of other Civil Service functions like creating job classifications or moving employees from one job to another.

Naturally, folks over at Civil Service weren't all that enthusiastic. But it was supported by everyone from Sheriff David Gee and Tax Collector Doug Belden, both Republicans, to longtime politician and current Clerk of the Court Pat Frank, a Democrat. The County Commission voted to back it, too, and the bill went on to sail through the House on a 105-3 vote, also notably from both sides of the aisle.

Now for the plot twist: With a nod from a single state senator, the whole thing looked dead as disco in the waning days of the session. Tampa's own Sen. Arthenia Joyner invoked a little-known rule that says a senator (her) can boot a local bill (Civil Service reform) from the agenda if she so chooses. She chose.

Some supporters of the bill thought this downright undemocratic, given the overwhelming support from other Hillsborough legislators. Joyner pointed out the rule was not created just for her. True enough. But government is supposed to be about the will of the people through their elected representatives, and that's representatives, plural.

But wait! Just when you thought it was over, Sen. Tom Lee pulled a fast one of his own, waiving the rules and getting it back on the calendar for a vote. (Turns out the rules allow for that, too.) It passed 27-10 — a move so unexpected it caught Tampa's savvy La Gaceta newspaper lauding Joyner for killing the bill, which turned out to be not quite dead yet.

And even with a boring bit of legislation intended to make government work a little better (yawn), Tallahassee can be one interesting place.

Sue Carlton: How Tallahassee turned boring bill into high drama 05/06/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 6, 2014 8:04pm]

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