A slippery personnel slope

Jul. 08, 2014 @ 06:57 PM

Some members of a union representing city employees have leveled charges that two recent dismissals were discriminatory and reflected a pattern of “promotions, pay raises and disciplinary actions that disproportionately affects black city worker employees within many city departments.”

The evidence they offered appears, at least at first glance, to be scant. The council and city administration nonetheless should look closely at the assertions and determine if there is conduct that consciously or unconsciously suggests such discrimination. And we are sure that they will.

But without judging the merit of the claims by the group, a branch of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, we would raise serious questions about potential consequences, perhaps unintended, of their proposed remedy.

The group would have the city establish a review panel appointed by and reporting to the City Council, and would prohibit the city manager from reversing grievance rulings by that panel.

As The Herald-Sun’s Ray Gronberg pointed out in reporting the group’s Monday news conference, such a prohibition probably would run afoul of state law, which gives the city manager full power in hiring and firing most city employees.

While establishing a grievance panel that could override that authority might have limited effect, we worry that eroding the manager’s hiring and firing authority is a slippery slope.

That authority is a cornerstone of the council-manager form of government adopted by Durham and more than half the cities in the United States. Investing broad policy decisions in elected representatives who in turn hire a professional administrator to carry out the day-to-day management of the city was an attempt to avoid the “bossism,” favoritism and shifting tides that can occur when multiple elected officials can intervene in hiring and firing decisions.

Truth be told, we suspect the risk of discrimination and decisions based on something other than job performance and competence are greater with  elected officials, one eye on solidifying an electoral powerbase, too closely involved in those decisions.

Nothing in that observation is meant to suggest any current member of the City Council would be likely to abuse or misuse greater engagement in the hiring and firing of individual employees; quite the contrary. But the vicissitudes of electoral politics could change that rapidly.

That is not to say that elected officials are off the hook for the decisions their hired manager makes.  Indeed, they are very much on the hook and accountable to the voters for the decision they make in hiring a manager.

Indeed, we doubt seriously this council would sit by and tolerate a pattern of poor personnel decisions by City Manager Tom Bonfield. But all evidence suggests that, despite the occasional complaint that will inevitably arise when terminations are made, the council and the public at large have the utmost confidence in Bonfield’s management.

To reiterate – the employees who have complained deserve a hearing, but let’s remember there are good reasons we and other cities have tried to keep politics out of personnel decisions.