TAMPA — Hillsborough County employees described the Civil Service Board as a final bastion against cronyism in the workplace. But that didn't stop the county's legislative delegation Tuesday from unanimously approving a proposed bill that would bring about its demise.
The reason? All five of Hillsborough's elected constitutional officers agree they can do the same job for a lot less money.
Sheriff Chad Chronister, Clerk of the Circuit court Pat Frank and county administrator Mike Merrill asked Hillsborough's local legislators to support their plan for dismantling the Civil Service Board — the only countywide personnel agency of its kind in Florida.
If approved during the upcoming legislative session, the bill would go into effect Oct. 1 and save taxpayers an estimated $1.3 million annually, according to its sponsors, Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, and Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.
Many of the county workers, union officials, NAACP members and others who spoke Tuesday opposed the move, urging legislators to ensure that employees can turn to the Civil Service Board for representation when appealing disciplinary action.
"HR is not a friend of the workers. You got to get that clear," said Hector Ramos, regional director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employee. "This is an attack on workers. They want to eliminate another layer that protects them."
The Civil Service Board was created by a special act of the Legislature in 1951 to prevent politicians from determining who was hired or fired in county government by taking over much of the county's human resources work.
As an added measure of protection, the board's existence was written into state law, which means that any changes must be supported by a state legislator in a bill, then gain approval by the county's local delegation and both chambers of the Legislature.
Complaints that the board was archaic, costly and added an unnecessary level of bureaucracy led the County Commission to adopt an amendment in 2014 to the state Civil Service Act that allows local government agencies to "opt out" of all services except one — appeals of disciplinary action.
Department-led human resources divisions now oversee 94 percent of the county's nearly 10,000 employees, leaving just 195 employees "fully covered" by the Civil Service Board, Grant said. In all of 2018, the agency — led by former county commissioner Kevin Beckner, staffed by nine county employees, guided by a board of seven governor-appointed members and with a budget of $1.93 million — conducted only 10 disciplinary appeal hearings.
Under the proposed bill, Merrill said the county would hire a licensed professional retained through the American Arbitration Association to represent employees and would pay all associated costs. The bill specifies that county agencies must create a "fair, neutral and impartial system" for handling appeals and provide employees with "substantially similar protections and rights."
"Think about this for a second. If you had to get your appendix taken out would you want to go to an expert doctor or go in front of a board of political appointees?" Sheriff Chad Chronister asked the legislators. "We feel it's absolutely, 100 percent, unequivocally, a better, additional layer of protection for our employees facing discipline."
Beckner acknowledged to the legislators that he was one of the county commissioners who unanimously voted for the 2014 amendment. But after 19 months as the board's director, he said, he has come to regret that decision.
"What causes me most to regret my decision are the countless employees, many of whom are minorities and in particular, individuals of color, who have complained to me about the political cronyism and nepotism that now, once again, exists in the hiring process," Beckner said. "I am filled with guilt when I have to tell them that there's nothing I can do because their agency has opted out of those rules and I was one of the individuals who allowed that to happen."
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