After months of gathering input from top staff and employees, Napa is preparing the first draft of a November ballot measure that will ask voters to alter portions of the city’s charter concerning the Civil Service Commission.
The proposed changes were brought up last year at the behest of the Napa City Council, after City Manager Mike Parness pointed out problems he felt had surfaced in recent years.
“When the Civil Service Commission was first formed, there weren’t any of the employee protections we have in place now,” Parness said Wednesday.
“Since the commission was created, we’ve passed laws that give employees the rights to organize, bargain and challenge their employer. We have the police officer’s bill of rights, the firefighter’s bill of rights and (collectively bargained) contracts that allow for appeals. And yet, our city charter still makes all these references to the role of the commission.”
The cost of the putting the measure on the ballot isn’t known. Additional public meetings on the matter will be held on July 11 and Aug. 5.
Civil service commissions have long been used by charter cities such as Napa as a tool to handle public employee issues. Though a number of charter cities throughout the state still employ civil service commissions, most have undergone significant changes to their scope of authority, according to city staff, yet the role of Napa’s commission hasn’t undergone scrutiny in years.
Parness admitted the city’s entire charter needed to be updated, but said the city is starting small and focusing only on the Civil Service Commission for now.
In November, the city created a task force helmed by facilitator John Glaser to examine the role of the Civil Service Commission. The committee met 12 times over eight months and published recommended changes to the city’s charter in March. Any changes must be approved by voters, causing officials to push to finish the measure in time for the November election.
Napa’s Department of Personnel consists of the five-person Civil Service Commission and a personnel director who is appointed by the commission. The director is hired by the commission, meaning that the city manager has no authority over the personnel director’s employment.
According to the city’s charter, the commission is responsible for reviewing rules, regulations and problems that arise with city staff. The board, which consists of two members appointed by the City Council, two members elected by the employees and one appointed by the other four members, also hears disciplinary appeals and conducts investigations.
Since 2010, when the city created its own Human Resources Department, many of the commission’s duties have been transferred to human resources. Unlike the commission, human resources is accountable to the city manager.
But according to the city’s current charter, the commission still holds the authority to handle some aspects of hiring and promotion, testing of prospective employees and appeals to administrative decisions – some of which is now the purview of the Human Resources Department, Assistant City Manager Nancy Weiss said Thursday.
“Under the proposed changes, the commission would still hear personnel-related appeals and advise the council on personnel policy,” she said during Tuesday’s City Council meeting. “But they wouldn’t appoint the personnel director. That person would be hired by the city, in a process consistent with all other city employees.”
The proposed changes would also demote the personnel director to a personnel manager and remove redundant language from the city charter.
While some consider civil service commissions redundant – a layer of government that is no longer needed because of employee protection laws – others say it remains important.
“If you look at what the City Council did in the 1960s, they basically took the personnel system away from the authority of the city manager,” said Civil Service Commissioner Bill Jabin, a retired Napa police commander who has been critical of the changes since they were suggested. “It was designed so there couldn’t be managerial influence over the personnel system.”
Jabin said that just because other cities don’t adhere to older civil service methods doesn’t mean Napa should follow suit.
“Even if everyone else does it differently, it doesn’t make Napa wrong,” he said. “It makes Napa unique.”
But even Jabin said he would go along with the changes if the unions agreed to every request — a scenario that remains to be worked out between the city and its labor force.
“Our concern is that the devil is in the details,” said Becky Abrams, president of the Napa City Employees Association, which is Napa’s largest employee union. “We are still working to address all of the (employee’s) concerns. These changes are important. Once we make them, it’s not easy to go back. We’re talking about an election.”
Another aspect of Napa’s charter that the ballot measure could change is how the city categorizes its fire and police chiefs, who hold two of the city’s highest-paying positions. Currently, if the city manager chose to terminate either department head, he would first have to plead his case before the Civil Service Commission.
The two chiefs are the only city department leaders who receive such protection, and the charter task force recommended removing it for both positions.
“It’s a very unique structure,” said Parness. “We have outstanding chiefs and the time to deal with this is when you have outstanding chiefs. I’ve been in other cities where there have been issues and dealing with this would have been awkward and difficult.”
Parness pointed out that while there have been no issues with either public safety chief, if a fireable offense did arise, Parness’ actions would be heavily scrutinized by the Napa City Council and the public.
“You don’t make changes to those posts without good a good reason because the chiefs are so visible,” he said. “So their classified status becomes redundant.”
Neither chief commented publicly at Tuesday’s city council meeting, reserving their statements until after more discussions occur with the city. But staff said that the employee groups involved were concerned about making the positions at-will.
Parness stressed that the city is not finished with the ordinance language and said that the coming months would be crucial to ironing out the details. Weiss said Thursday that the city has been unable to find any other cities in the state that allow their police and fire chiefs to be classified employees.
“We’re still in discussions,” Parness said. “We’re going through a meet-and-confer process. No one’s drawn any lines in the sand. We’ve dealt with a majority of issued and I’m hopeful we can bring something to the council in August.”