Although issues with Raleigh’s Civil Service Commission were first brought to the attention of City Council in March of this year, no changes have been implemented and the Council has not discussed the issue since May.
The Commission is a measure of last resort for any city employee whose filed grievance has been dismissed by his or her supervisor and the city manager. Employees can file grievances on issues ranging from promotions to layoffs.
“The employees generally refer to it as a kangaroo court,” said Keith Wilder, president of the Raleigh Professional Fire Fighters Association.
“They don’t think the process is viable if you’re truly in the right,” he said.
A study by the Record in March showed that in 10 out of 11 cases brought before the Commission since 2007, it sided with the city manager’s initial decision. In the one instance where it sided with an employee, it was by a vote of 3 to 2. A seven-member body, the Commission requires a four-vote majority to overturn the city manager’s decision.
In most instances, the full Commission has not been present when voting.
“Based on what I’ve been told, the Civil Service Commission has not overturned a decision by the city manager,” said City Councilor Mary-Ann Baldwin. “I think that’s what some of the employees were upset about.”
Wilder said in addition to the supermajority requirement, the fact that only two members of the Commission are selected by city employees means the odds are often stacked against an individual employee.
The City Council, however, does not have the authority to revise either of these policies.
The Commission operates under state law, (HB-482, 1981) which expressly spells out how many employee representatives may serve and requires of a four-vote majority to overturn the city manager’s decision.
Raleigh is one of the few cities in the state whose grievance procedure does not end with the city manager’s office, although Charlotte also has a Civil Service Commission.
“The state basically passed a law that would allow us to do this,” Baldwin said of the Commission.
“If we wanted to make changes, we would have to bring it to the legislature, and I know that that’s not going to happen.”
State law does, however, grant City Council the right to remove any members of the Commission for malfeasance or failure to perform their assigned duties. Due to the four-vote requirement, the Commission’s spotty attendance record has been cited as one of the reasons so few cases are decided in an employee’s favor.
In response to the complaints brought forward in March, Baldwin said the Council had “asked for civil service commission members to make sure they attend the meetings,” although no further action has been taken.
“The issue that was brought before Council had to do with a termination — we cannot hire and fire; we don’t have the authority,” Baldwin said.
That means that they cannot get involved with any specific case.
Former City Councilor Randy Stagner said while the Commission is required to operate within certain parameters, the City Council may be able to implement certain changes, including a requirement that all seven members be present when voting.
As these types of changes would exclusively benefit city employees, Stagner said it’s not an issue most Councilors would want to address.
“This isn’t like voting for Dix Park,” he said. “This is something that’s frankly roll-up-your-sleeves hard work.”
Lack of Follow-Up
When the Civil Service Commission’s voting and attendance record was brought to the attention of City Council by the organization Black Workers for Justice at the March 5, 2013 meeting, it was in relation to the case of Shirley Venable, a city sanitation employee who was fired by the department. The Commission voted 3-2 in favor of Venable’s case, but this was not enough to overturn the city manager’s initial decision.
Beccause the City Council does not have the authority to overturn the Commission’s decisions, Council members at the time decided that a review of its general policies, rather than a review of Venable’s specific case, would be conducted by the Law and Public Safety Committee.
The issue was sent back to Council after confusion arose over whether the committee would be addressing specific grievances. Baldwin, who chairs the committee, stated in the March 19 City Council meeting that addressing the issue may lead to the committee accidentally overstepping its bounds.
At the May 21, 2013 City Council meeting, Ashaki Binta from United Electrical Workers 150 brought up the issue of the Venable case.
Mayor McFarlane stated in the meeting that the Council would be glad to discuss the grievance procedure itself, but not any one specific case.
McFarlane said the reason the issue has not come up again at City Council is because she never heard back from UE 150 after inviting them to discuss any issues its members may have with the grievance procedure.
Once it became more widely known that the Council did not have the option of rehiring someone let go by the city, McFarlane said she has not had any more requests for conversation on the issue.
“I think it’s because it was so tightly bound in with that one case,”she said.
Calls made by the Record to Black Workers for Justice and UE 150 were not returned.
A Lengthy Process
Rick Armstrong, who works with the Raleigh Police Protective Association, said in addition to the problem employees face getting the Commission to decide in their favor, the amount of time it takes from an initial dismissal to a hearing can be discouraging.
In other cases where employees have a problem, such as when a new evaluation system was implemented by the Raleigh Police Department, Armstrong said the grievance process becomes something of a black hole.
More than 200 grievances were filed in response to the system, Armstrong said.
“Not one of our members had any follow-up from the city or HR to let them know where their grievance was or what the status was,” he said.
Although the system was ultimately overturned, Armstrong said the complete lack of a response from the city on any of the grievances was disconcerting.
Although some of the changes both Armstrong and Wilder would like to see implemented — an additional employee representative and a simple majority vote requirement — would require changing state law, both believe there is more that the city can do about the grievance process than it has.
“Ultimately we’re not looking to have an unbalance of power,” Armstrong said.
“But there should be a body that listens objectively, and the city manager should not be able to fire people unilaterally.”