Anniston officials last week announced their intent to remove about 139 employees from the city's civil service system through state legislation. City officials say the change will let them rearrange departments quickly to make government more efficient. It's a plan in keeping with similar efforts across the country to improve local governing flexibility and efficiency while keeping many civil service protections, some experts say.
The city's civil service system, established in 1953, is governed by a three-member board, which according to state law has the power to make rules and regulations governing such things as worker examinations, transfers, salaries, promotions, demotions, suspensions and firings. Anniston's legislation would remove most city employees, except mainly those in public safety, from the civil service system and place them under the oversight of the city manager.
Local officials have drafted a bill to accomplish the changes, but the bill has not yet been introduced in the Legislature. The city this week tweaked the bill to allow city employees within five years of retirement to remain under the civil service system if they choose, City Manager Brian Johnson said. He added that the bill would make no changes to any employee’s retirement benefits.
Attempts to reach members of the civil service board for comment Thursday were unsuccessful.
Johnson said he has been meeting with many city employees in recent days to dispel rumors and fears that the city was taking away their protections.
"There are a lot of fallacies ... like there is a misconception that when the civil service manual is no long a guiding document, it will just be the wild West and people will be hired and fired at will," Johnson said. "There will be almost an exact replica of the civil service manual adopted by the council, the only difference being that there won't be a civil service board."
Bill Lester, a professor in the political science and public administration at Jacksonville State University, said Anniston's plan is part of a trend of cities moving away from civil service systems.
"It's dying on the vine and slowly being replaced across the country with at-will employment and contracts," Lester said. "The belief is that by doing this it provides a more smooth administrative apparatus in making hiring and firing decisions."
Harvey Newman, professor at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University, agreed that local governments are moving away from civil service systems.
"The impression I have is they are in fact on the decline," Newman said. "Many systems are contracting out a lot of their employees ... part of it is a cost-saving measure ... the feeling is if they contract out, they can avoid the benefits structure."
Johnson noted that the city has no plans to contract out employees after changes are made to the civil service system.
Newman said governments are also moving away from civil service boards due to improvements in local government itself over the years. Newman said civil service systems were enacted more than 100 years ago to counteract patronage in local governments. Since that time, however, many other reforms have been made to government hiring and make it more professional.
"Now I don't think people are afraid of patronage because most have limited their public officials like Atlanta, whose mayor can only run for two terms," Newman said. "The feeling is those old problems can now be avoided in other ways."
Lester also said some government officials are moving away from civil service systems because of other reforms.
"The basic idea is we've all grown beyond that degree of cronyism," Lester said.
Nearby Gadsden has had civil service system in place for just its fire and police departments for decades, said Gadsden Mayor Sherman Guyton. Despite not having a civil service system, however, all other city employees had to go through a strict process before being hired, Guyton said.
"People go through the personnel department and like the police and fire, there is a test they have to pass," Guyton said. "That is sort of out of the mayor and council's hands."
Guyton added that employees have a way to fight decisions made by administrators, including demotions and firings.
"If somebody has a complaint, they can file a grievance and then a grievance committee is formed," Guyton said. "And if they rule against them, it can be appealed to the mayor."
Johnson said he just wants to remove employees from civil service to make a city that better responds to residents.
"The city has needs and needs to address those quickly," Johnson said.
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.