Carlton: Hillsborough's Civil Service Board: A good idea whose time has come and gone

Once upon a time, the civil service board protected government workers, including minorities and women, against political cronyism. Today it's hard to justify its existence.
Former Hillsborough Commissioner Kevin Beckner is director of the county civil service board. The agency’s days may be numbered. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times (2016)]
Former Hillsborough Commissioner Kevin Beckner is director of the county civil service board. The agency’s days may be numbered. [MONICA HERNDON | Times (2016)]
Published February 1
Updated February 1

Once upon a time in local government, the need for a civil service board was pretty clear.

As part of a national movement to protect government workers from the whims of politics, such a board was created for Hillsborough County in the 1950s as a sort of separate personnel agency.

This meant a change of bosses — newly elected Democrat, freshly-minted Republican — could not sweep the place clean in the name of cronyism. The board was there to protect rank-and-file workers from political patronage hirings and firings by having uniform standards.

And the timing was particularly good for minorities, and also women, battling for their rightful space in the workplace.

We’ve come a long way. And today, there’s good argument that Hillsborough’s civil service board has had its day.

After more than six decades, county bosses complained that the board had moved from its purer purpose to become an antiquated and expensive snarl of bureaucracy.

Among other things, you couldn’t even revise employee’s duties to keep apace with changes in the working world without jumping through a whole lot of hoops.

So in 2014, the Hillsborough County Commission adopted an amendment allowing government agencies to opt out of all the board’s services except one — appeals of disciplinary actions. Now only 195 of the county’s nearly 10,000 employees are fully covered by the civil service board.

Meanwhile, the agency has a $1.93 million budget and nine employees. In its shrunken role, it handled only 10 disciplinary appeal hearings last year — though director Kevin Becker would want you to know the board also provides a litany if human resources services to 15 county agencies.

Fun fact, or at least a politically interesting one: Beckner was one of the very commissioners who voted to weaken the board back then — a decision he says he regrets now that he’s seen things from his current perspective.

Beckner recently found himself crosswise with the county’s elected constitutional officers — the sheriff, court clerk, property appraiser, elections supervisor and tax collector — for his attempt to expand the board into a business venture that could provide human resources services to small businesses, non-profits and others.

Sheriff Chad Chronister issued a statement saying Beckner’s proposal wasn’t about protecting employee rights or spending taxpayer dollars wisely, but “merely an attempt by an ineffective agency to justify its existence.”

The most telling shift in perspective came this week when the county’s legislative delegation unanimously approved a proposed bill that could effectively kill the civil service board outright.

Constitutional officers said what had to be music to the legislative delegation’s collective ears:

With this bill, they could get the job done themselves, and a whole lot cheaper.

Also notable was the bill’s bipartisan sponsors, Darryl Rouson, the Democratic state senator from St. Petersburg, and Tampa Republican Rep. Jamie Grant.

So here’s a sampling of what’s happening in Hillsborough: Court clerk Pat Frank’s office has a majority of minority employees. More than three quarters in tax collector Doug Belden’s are women.

Which is certainly not to say workers no longer need strong protections against the next round of politicians at the helm. Or even the ones currently there.

The bill specifically requires a “fair, neutral and impartial system” for handling employee appeals and protecting their rights. Translated, this means the county would hire professionals through the American Arbitration Association to represent employees — as Frank pointed out, “highly-trained arbitrators who are experts in labor law, not political appointees.”

Which sounds like moving forward to me.

Contact Sue Carlton at scarlton@tampabay.com.

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