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Ballot measure that would boost San Diego mayor’s hiring power gets key approval

This article was originally published in The San Diego Union-Tribune.

San Diego voters are likely to get a chance this November to give Mayor Todd Gloria more power over hiring city workers, which could help San Diego fill hundreds of open jobs more quickly and reduce its vacancy rate below 16 percent.

The City Council’s Rules Committee gave unanimous support Wednesday — for a second time this spring — to a proposed ballot measure that would transfer to Gloria hiring power now held by the city’s independent Civil Service Commission.

Supporters of the proposed measure say giving an elected official like the mayor more power over hiring wouldn’t increase the risk of corruption, patronage and nepotism.

Critics say the measure would eliminate protections for city workers and could damage confidence residents have in the city’s hiring process. They also say it could damage the integrity of the city’s civil service “merit” hiring system.

Councilmember Marni von Wilpert, who is spearheading efforts behind the measure, said protections for workers would not be damaged and the merit system would remain unchanged.

She agreed that the measure probably needs to be rewritten with more precise language to make it clear to voters that the corruption concerns of critics are unwarranted.

But she said workers would continue to be able to appeal a wide variety of decisions by the mayor to the Civil Service Commission.

“It does not take away from the merit-based system,” she said. “There’s all sorts of protections built in here.”

Local attorney Bob Ottilie, a former member of the Civil Service Commission, said the proposed changes could bring the kind of corruption and problems to City Hall that people don’t think are even possible right now.

He said in 1998 that then-Mayor Susan Golding made a similar attempt to transfer hiring power from the Civil Service Commission to the mayor’s office but was rebuffed by community leaders.

The League of Women Voters also raised concerns Wednesday.

“We believe the proposal has the potential for introducing an element of political influence into the hiring and firing process,” said Kim Knox, leader of the group’s local chapter. “Any efficiencies which might be gained by placing the personnel director and the Personnel Department under the mayor should be weighed against the potential harm.”

Von Wilpert said the mayor needs more power to help accelerate a city hiring process that has left more than 1,800 jobs vacant.

“I don’t want to leave qualified applicants on the vine because it takes us four months to get back to them,” said von Wilpert, noting that the city’s vacancy problem dates back at least nine years. “This is not a new problem.”

Kristina Peralta, an aide to Gloria, said the mayor needs more power.

“Our process is broken,” she said. “It shouldn’t take four months to bring someone in.”

Doug Edwards, the city’s personnel director, harshly criticized the proposal and stressed that San Diego isn’t any worse at filling vacancies than comparable cities.

He noted that San Diego’s 16 percent vacancy rate compares favorably with Denver at 34 percent, Dallas at 23 percent and Sacramento at 20 percent. Phoenix is at 16 percent, Oakland is at 15 percent and San Jose is at 13 percent.

Edwards also contends that the 302-day average amount of time it has taken to hire a new worker during the last three years is primarily the result of the city department hiring the worker. He said 68 percent of the time is taken up by the department doing the hiring, while only 20 percent is taken up by the Personnel Department.

Council President Sean Elo-Rivera said he was reluctant to dismiss the concerns of critics because the city’s civil service rules were put in place for good reasons.

“Patronage was a real thing,” he said. “And we see attempts all over the place to act untoward.”

But he also said those concerns must be balanced against the needs for workers who can deliver services to city residents.

“We have to do something,” he said.

The proposed ballot measure will go to the full council in the coming weeks for possible placement on the November ballot. If the council takes such a vote, city officials must meet with labor unions representing the workers who would be affected by the change.