"We the people" can amend our Constitution — our basic framework of civil rights and self-government — but we cannot rescind a personnel policy decision made decades ago and leave the civil service system. The voters of a municipality can choose to place their public employees into the civil service system. But once that decision is made, the state statute mandates that future generations of municipal citizens are bound by it.
In 1908, New Jersey became the sixth state to establish a Civil Service Commission, and today there are 194 municipalities in the system. According to the commission, "from the very beginning, the civil service law mandated that appointments to and promotions in the civil service of this state, and — from the time of its adoption by any municipality of this state — shall be made only according to merit and fitness, to be ascertained, as far as practicable, by examinations, which as far as practicable shall be competitive."
While civil service's goal may be to appoint and promote based on "merit and fitness," the process has become so costly and burdensome that both management and employees' hands become tied. The present civil service rules and regulations make it extremely difficult for a public manager to terminate unproductive employees. It is even more difficult to reward productive employees, to recruit the best-qualified candidates or cross-train personnel to meet community needs.
Municipalities have long sought the authority and ability to govern without the constraints of antiquated civil service regulations, to manage employees based upon ability and merit, not merely time served. While length of service and loyalty are worthy accomplishments, they must be meshed with performance and efficiency.
In order to properly deal with today's economy, governments need to become leaner, more streamlined and more flexible if they are going to be able to continue providing services that the public has come to expect. The current system under the civil service rules makes this almost impossible. In most governmental agencies, there are times of the year that are busier than others. Thus, it would seem logical and efficient to be able to have a talented employee be assigned to work in more than one department. Incredibly, under current civil service rules, this approach is not recognized.
One effective means by which governments, especially local and county governments, can achieve efficiencies is through shared services, also known as interlocal agreements, where two or more towns can get together to provide a service more cost effectively. Creating a shared service where one jurisdiction is under civil service and the other is not can be so complex that in many cases the towns just give up.
Middletown Mayor Gerard Schefenberger is all for changes that will unshackle governments from overly intrusive and burdensome state rules. "We want as many tools at our disposal as possible these days. We are anxious to be innovative, especially in the areas of shared services and cross-training of employees. Allowing us the option of opting out of civil service would be very helpful. Even if we are ultimately not allowed to opt out, at a minimum there needs to be some fundamental changes to current rules and we need them fast."
We do not fight crime or fires, nor educate our children, like we did a century ago. We have transitioned our administrative offices operations from pens and paper to desktops in order to be more efficient. We have not, however, updated our human resource system in 100 years. Now is the time to permit ourselves to divorce from an antiquated system.
William G. Dressel, Jr. is the Executive Director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.