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Gavin Newsom is no civil service reformer 

Wednesday, May 6 2009
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Now that Gavin Newsom is running for governor, we're getting to see a new side of him — or, at least, a campaign portrayal distinct from the real-life mayor San Franciscans know. According to his "Newsom for Governor" publicity materials, the mayor has used "aggressive civil service reform and a lot of common sense to manage what is often seen as an unmanageable city." And last week he released a Web video advertisement, in which the former husband of his top education aide declared — in halting Spanish — that San Francisco schools are improving and teachers are keeping their jobs.

Back home, however, the city is struggling under an absentee mayor given to patching over problems in ways designed to offend the fewest interest groups possible, even if that means worsening the problem. Take, for instance, Newsom's efforts to soften the blow of layoffs for city custodians, cafeteria workers, school secretaries, and clerks represented by the politically powerful Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

In a complaint filed in San Francisco Superior Court last month, the San Francisco Unified School District alleges Newsom is in favor of busing — busing in laid-off city employees to take school district jobs, that is. In the suit, school officials accuse the mayor's appointees of trying to turn the district into a dumping ground for laid-off clerical workers.

This policy is a disaster for schools because it forces the district to fire its own employees, or cover the cost of the new salaries by cutting elsewhere. "If we have to bring in these additional employees, it means less money going into the classroom," said Maribel Medina, general counsel for the school district. "When all of a sudden you're told, 'You have to add 15 new employees, and you have to pay salary and benefits,' it's impossible to meet your obligations."

Would the mayor really stick it to schoolkids just to appease Democratic-Party–friendly public sector unions? This complaint seems to raise that possibility.

But Micki Callahan, the city's human resources director, insists that the city has to abide by civil service rules that allow laid-off employees to bump junior workers citywide.

"Our obligation is to continue to enforce the provision of the rules that apply, and continue to protect employee rights," she said. "We will continue to send letters to try to place employees. We can't try to predict how the school district will proceed. But if they don't accept the workers, it will economically affect employees that might not otherwise have been laid off."

According to the complaint, Newsom's staff has repeatedly ordered the school district to replace current school workers with laid-off city employees. When the district refused, Newsom staffers and appointees sent threatening letters, saying its refusal was unlawful.

But the school district says it's the mayor who is violating the law. In California, school districts are separate agencies not subject to control by mayors, county supervisors, or other municipal officials.

San Francisco's civil service rules say employees who are laid off for budget reasons have the right to displace another city employee with less seniority in a similar job, even if the bumped employee works in a different department. As the city moved to lay off 400 workers in January and April, mayoral staffers ordered the school district to accept six bumped workers. School officials refused. On April 17, the Civil Service Commission sent a letter demanding that the schools hire the workers. Three days later the school district filed suit, asking a judge to order the city to stop Newsom from attempting to meddle in school affairs.

"The Constitution says school districts are agents of the state," not of local municipalities, Medina says. "That's why every other school district does its own hiring and firing."

But under state law, as in everything else, San Francisco is special. Callahan explains that the California education code has a section exempting the city from the requirement that school districts are separate from the cities in which they reside. So when the city began attempting to move unwanted workers into the school district, the seniority system applied to City College and elementary schools just as much as it encompassed the public works department. "We believe we are bound by that," Callahan said.

This exception to state law was passed in 1946 when, ironically, school district employees sought the protection of the city's civil service system. Donald Casper, president of the Civil Service Commission, says he welcomes a judge's ruling, so that the city will know whether school employees are under its purview or not.

This tiff is doubly ironic in light of Newsom's very public irritation with the city's Byzantine "bumping rights" system, in which replacing a single worker can set off a cascade of displacement whereby a dozen or so employees end up changing jobs to accommodate more senior laid-off employees — at a cost many times the original worker's pay.

Indeed, during the mayor's first term, the idea of reforming civil service rules was among his top stated priorities. Newsom was quoted in the local press as saying, "We're not opposed to bumping. We just want to put some rationality into it." He claimed that allowing a single beloved neighborhood park gardener to remain in his post would have cost $900,000 because of all the bumping-related job shifting involved.

Newsom's human resources department even produced a beautiful PowerPoint presentation titled "Civil Service Reform: Preserving the Promise of Government." In 2007, he unveiled a splashy civil service reform proposal. But the focus was no longer on gutting union-friendly work rules such as "bumping rights." Rather, its most touted features included a "modernized" hiring hall with computer kiosks, job application and assessment software, and new hiring procedures. Oh, and union-represented managers, but not rank-and-file employees, would see their bumping rights eliminated.

"It was kind of the usual Newsom — all smoke and no fire," recalled Aaron Peskin, who was president of the Board of Supervisors at the time.

Revising the bumping rights system in any meaningful way was abandoned because doing so would pose a threat to Newsom's ambitions. Labor support is essential for any California Democrat seeking statewide office.

"Bumping, or, as it's officially called, 'order of layoff,' is a labor-sensitive issue," Casper said. "It incorporates and elaborates in a civil service setting the basic union rule of last hired, first fired." A new round of proposed reforms is being debated, but as for the bumping rights at play in the school district's lawsuit, that particular issue is not on the table, Casper said.

I was unable to reach officials with the Service Employees International Union and the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers for comment before press time.

There has long been a San Francisco tradition in which lazy managers eliminated the chaff in their departments by laying off poor performers during lean budget times, then cackled into their hands when these unwanted staffers were bumped into other departments.

In the event that the school district is compelled to hire staff it doesn't need, schoolkids may end up short of supplies, or even teachers, so clerical employees can land superfluous jobs.

This sort of backward management might prove a handicap if Newsom were angling for a job other than governor of California. But if the performance of that office's recent chairwarmers is any guide, Californians have little appetite for governors bent on real reform. Rather, this state, like San Francisco, has settled into satisfying itself with a revised version of Jerry Brown's 30-year-old "canoe theory" of politics, in which a politician paddles a little on the left, a little on the right, and keeps moving forward. In San Francisco and in the state capital, politicians get away with promising a bit of reform on one side, then mucking things up even worse on the other, yet somehow advancing their political careers.

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Matt Smith

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