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Sticking it to state workers

Published August 31, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - The management of any sensibly run business wants its workers to believe that they will be promoted if they work hard and work well. This used to be the ethic in Florida state government too, in large part because of the civil service reforms that Gov. LeRoy Collins fought for almost 50 years ago.

But the Jeb Bush administration is quietly hanging up a sign - only for top jobs, they insist - that says in effect, "State workers need not apply."

A document entitled "hiring guidelines" that was handed May 7 to all the governor's agency heads says that three or more candidates should be considered for every position and that "at least two of the candidates must be from outside of government."

To that extent, it resembles commonplace affirmative action policies that require minority or female candidates to be identified for all job opportunities. The obvious irony here is that Bush abolished affirmative action in that traditional sense.

His new policy, however, actually creates preferences and implies quotas.

Under the subheading, "Hiring from within," the document makes it explicit: "On occasion a candidate from within may be the best candidate. Remember, however, that we are looking to bring new talent and fresh ideas into state government. Please make sure you have exhausted external search before proceeding with internal candidates."

On occasion?

The document also said that one way to find "good candidates" would be to ask the governor's office for a list of names. Another would be to "network with people in your industries to find good candidates to bring into state government . . ."

In your industries?

The policy reflects the apparent authorship of Sara Struhs, chief of the governor's Professional Development office. When last heard of, Struhs - the wife of David Struhs, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection and sister of Andrew Card, President Bush's chief of staff - was making $20,000 a year as a part-time policy analyst at the Florida Department of Education. She is paid $78,796 in her new full-time position, the governor's office said Friday.

Responding to other questions, the governor's press secretary, Alia Faraj, said by e-mail that the executive office is not checking to see how agencies comply because the document was "merely a suggested list of guidelines," Moreover, she said, they were intended only for "senior management" positions.

Within the document, however, there is no explicit reference to "senior management," but only to the importance of "management responsibilities" in determining salaries.

However it was intended, the governor's agency heads clearly recognized the document's potential for explosive controversy, and closely limited its circulation. It did not turn up in a public records request asking for several randomly selected agencies' hiring and promotion policies. When sent a followup request that made plain what I was looking for, three of the agencies promptly found it in files at the chief of staff level.

"The only place I could find it was in the deputy secretary's office," said Catherine Arnold, press officer at the Department of Juvenile Justice. She said also that no action was taken to carry it out.

It may be only a coincidence, but the Miami Herald reported Friday that Jerry Regier, secretary of the Department of Children and Families, has signed on an $82,000-a-year special assistant to the general counsel "who identifies himself as a culture warrior for religious conservatives." The new hire, James H.K. Bruner, most recently a failed political candidate in New York, is not yet licensed to practice law in Florida. It defies belief that there were no equally qualified Florida lawyers already on the state payroll.

I am told there is nothing in the law to prohibit a bias against promoting existing state employees. But, perhaps inconveniently for the governor, there is a master labor contract that says "promotion should be used to provide career mobility within the career service system. . . . Except where a vacancy is filled by demotion or reassignment, those employees who have applied for promotion will be given first consideration."

The largest state employee union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, may file an unfair labor charge over the promote-from-without policy.

"It leaves you speechless at the audacity that someone would say I'm going to develop a policy that is specifically discriminatory against those people who have spent their lives and sometimes their lifetimes in building up the state of Florida," says Alma Gonzalez, special counsel to the president.

The Bush administration would contend, I am sure, that the contract does not apply to promotions outside the career service (which it has been aggressively shrinking). Legalities aside, however, the policy will be widely seen as it is plainly meant: As yet another put-down of state workers. As one more way to pack the government with ideological carpetbaggers who know little and care less about Florida's history and values.

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