By Katherine G. Robertson and Mark L. Gaines
It’s been said before that for every bill that’s introduced in the legislature, two laws should be repealed. With hundreds of bills considered every year and with thousands of laws already on the books, it can be a daunting exercise to pinpoint those laws that have outlived their usefulness. One such law, passed in 1945, significantly restricts the authority of Alabama’s largest local governments over employment-related matters.
In 1935, the Alabama Legislature passed a bill to unify Jefferson County’s disjointed civil service system under a personnel board structure. Four years later, the legislature passed a local act of the same nature that applied to Mobile County. These bills were passed in response to a perceived “spoils system” within local government whereby newly elected officials were regularly replacing experienced employees with their political friends. The acts were designed to bring stability to the civil service systems that they encompassed.
In 1945, the legislature codified Jefferson County’s Personnel Board in a law known as the Enabling Act. The Enabling Act is a statewide law drafted so that every county in Alabama with 400,000 or more residents is subject to its jurisdiction and must establish a unified civil service system. In practice, this unified system is governed by a personnel board that inserts burdensome and mostly arbitrary steps into the hiring and firing process of local personnel.
Personnel boards have been described as dysfunctional, inefficient, ineffective, and expensive by those who have had to work within their guidelines. For instance, when a jurisdiction wishes to fill a vacancy, it must fill out a request to the personnel board which then sends a list of qualified candidates, selected through an oral or written examination, to the jurisdiction. A jurisdiction is then required to make its selection from the list. Because of this lengthy process, the candidate who is selected has often taken other employment. When this occurs, the jurisdiction must request a new list of candidates and start over.
The firing process under the personnel board structure is no better. Any full-time employee who is dismissed, demoted, or suspended for cause has the right of appeal. A hearing officer is appointed to the case by the personnel board and takes testimony and evidence from both sides. The personnel board then makes a decision. If the outcome is unsatisfactory to the employee, the decision can be appealed to the Circuit Court.
In one instance, a local employee was terminated due to incompetency and for violating orders given by a superior. When the employee appealed to the personnel board, her termination was modified to a suspension, and she was reinstated. One year later, the same employee filed a grievance against a particular department after receiving an unsatisfactory rating. When her grievance was denied by the personnel board, she appealed to the Circuit Court. While that was pending, she was terminated again and appealed. After almost four years of litigation, her cases were ultimately all resolved in favor of the city.
Alabama’s state employees are subject to a similar personnel board structure with specified hiring plans, pay structures, and serving rating requirements. It is equally as onerous at the state level to file grievances, hire employees, and adjust compensation. In both the state and local personnel board structure, the personalization and accountability that makes the private sector effective in employment decisions is completely removed.
When the Alabama Legislature looks to repeal laws that no longer serve their intended purposes, the Enabling Act and its state-level counterpart should be ripe for the picking. As Alabama’s counties and municipalities grow, more and more local governments will become subject to these laws that are both costly and ineffective. Though the underlying intent of the personnel boards was noble, it is time to remove these antiquated and unworkable statutes from the books. State and local leaders must be allowed to make employment decisions that are best for their departments and that give the public the best return on their tax dollars.
Katherine Robertson is vice president for the Alabama Policy Institute (API), an independent non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families. Mark Gaines, a guest contributor, is an attorney with the law firm of Adams and Reese LLP, a former member of the Alabama House of Representatives, and former Probate Judge for Jefferson County.