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Business group urges civil service overhaul

The system makes it hard for managers to hire and keep good people or weed out bad ones, the Council of 100 says.

By DIANE RADO

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- A high-powered group of business leaders says it's time to overhaul the way Florida hires, fires and pays state employees -- a difficult and politically divisive proposal.

The state work force should be more like the private work force, where employees who do good work can be rewarded with bonuses and employees who fail can be fired at any time and for any reason, the Florida Council of 100 recommends.

In effect, Florida's 1950s-era civil service system best known for protecting state employees from political patronage would be a thing of the past, under the council's recommendations unveiled Tuesday.

"The state's present system has been broken a long time," said Al Hoffman, a prominent real estate developer, vice chairman of the Florida Council of 100, and state finance chairman for George W. Bush's presidential campaign.

Hoffman headed a council task force that spent nearly a year studying Florida's civil service system, which covers some 120,000 employees around the state. Andrew Barnes, chairman and chief executive officer of the St. Petersburg Times, was a member of the task force.

Among its chief recommendations, the council called on Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Legislature to give all state employees "at-will" status, meaning they could be fired at any time for any reason. The council argues that a variety of federal and state laws -- some of them not in existence in the days of political patronage -- protect employees from arbitrary firing.

Now, state law says Florida's career service employees can be suspended or fired only for "cause," which involves formal notices, procedures and the opportunity for a state hearing. The process can take months or even years, the council's report states.

"Despite having many good, conscientious individuals in its ranks, Florida's Career Service (system) is a manager's nightmare. Recruiting, hiring and dismissing employees is so difficult that managers have difficulty doing their job -- managing," the report concludes.

The Council of 100's status in the business community will give its recommendations great weight with the Republican-led Legislature. But efforts to overhaul the civil system have failed in the past. And the current proposals come at a time when state workers already feel under attack. Bush wants to shrink government by 25 percent over the next five years and he asked state agencies to trim the first 5 percent next fiscal year.

Mark Neimeiser, political director of the union that represents most state employees, immediately attacked the Council of 100 proposal.

"Civil service was created to get away from patronage, from government for sale. Now we've come full circle," said Neimeiser, who warned of demonstrations and lawsuits should the plan to overhaul the system proceed.

"Every day, there are state workers out there who are making sure there is clean water, clean air, making sure things are processed, holding up the sky. The response from the Council of 100 is, off with your heads," Neimeiser said.

Hoffman says the council is not trying to cut jobs -- it is trying to make sure Florida can recruit, motivate and keep top talent in the state work force.

While it does not advocate an across-the-board pay increase to make state jobs more attractive, the council does recommend that the Legislature review how certain state employees are paid. The report says employees in critical middle management jobs are not getting competitive salaries.

The council also recommends eliminating the system that allows seniority, rather than job performance, to determine who gets laid off. It also recommends that the state move away from across-the-board pay raises. Instead, it says, the state should establish a bonus system to reward valuable employees.

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