Proposal bulks up power to fire Mich. state workers

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — House Speaker Kevin Cotter will propose Thursday a constitutional amendment making it easier to fire “bad actors” in the state employment ranks — a potentially sweeping reform at a time of intense scrutiny over the role career bureaucrats played in Flint’s water crisis.

Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration has cited civil service protections as the reason just one Department of Environmental Quality employee has been fired to date. Two others were suspended without pay, but only after they were charged criminally for their alleged roles in causing the public health calamity.

Cotter wants to strengthen the powers of state agency directors to fire employees when their conduct “directly and negatively impacts the department’s ability to accomplish its statutory duties in a fair, timely, equitable and transparent manner,” according to the constitutional amendment to be introduced Thursday.

“There’s no real ability, until we get to the place of criminal charges being filed, for bad actors to be removed,” Cotter said Wednesday in an interview with The Detroit News.

A top union lobbyist disputes Cotter’s characterization of the civil service laws, which extend job protections to more than 48,000 state employees.

“People get fired here every day in different departments,” said Ray Holman, legislative liaison for UAW Local 6000, which represents 17,300 unionized civil servants. “It’s hogwash that you can’t get rid of a poorly performing state employee.”

In the 2015 fiscal year, 336 employees were dismissed. That figure does not include employees who chose to resign or retiree to avoid being fired, said Matt Fedorchuk, deputy director of the Michigan Civil Service Commission.

The existing civil service laws allow state departments to fire employees for failure to carry out assigned duties, conduct unbecoming of a public servant and unsatisfactory job performance, Fedorchuk said.

Employees can be fired on ethical grounds for using their position to obtain and divulge confidential information for personal financial gain, taking bribes, steering state contracts to family members and using state time or sick days to conduct work outside of their state job.

“The reality is they have the mechanism to get rid of bad employees and people who do not function right now,” Holman said.

But a common complaint is it’s hard to fire bad employees who have already passed probationary periods, Cotter said.

“I think right now you have a situation where the far majority of state workers are taking a bit of a bad rap as a result of the actions of a small number of people,” said Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant. “It has a natural tendency to make people less motivated to perform because they know Johnny that’s two cubicles over is playing Candy Crush all day.”

Cotter’s proposal would require a two-thirds majority of both chambers of the Legislature and approval of voters on a statewide ballot.

Cotter said he’s “not dismantling the system” and would keep an appeals process in place for the governor-appointed Civil Service Commission to overturn firing decisions by state department directors.

Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said the governor is open to discussing with lawmakers how to change penalties for state workers who don’t perform their jobs, “specifically if it is a position tasked with protecting public health or safety.”

Untangling the web of rules and regulations of job protections for state workers has been a goal of House Republicans since the beginning of this two-year term.

“It’s not a direct response to Flint,” Cotter said. “It’s not something we came up with yesterday.”

But the fallout from the Flint crisis has cast a high profile on civil service rules. In late January, the Department of Environmental Quality suspended career water regulators Liane Shekter Smith and Stephen Busch.

Smith, the former head of the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance, was fired two weeks later, under civil service rules allowing for a "just cause" dismissal for infractions such as conduct unbecoming of a state employee and failure to carry out assigned duties.

Busch’s unpaid suspension lasted one week. His paycheck was reinstated while he remained on paid suspension for nearly two-and-a-half months until Attorney General Bill Schuette charged him last month with five felonies related to his supervision of Flint’s disastrous use of the Flint River drinking water.

Michael Prysby, a engineer who worked under Busch, also has been suspended without pay by the DEQ after being charged by Schuette for failing to protect Flint’s drinking water and allegedly covering up mistakes.

Rep. Andy Schor, D-Lansing, said the timing of Cotter’s proposal “seems that it’s in response to what happened in Flint.”

“I would really hate to have the response of poisoning people in Flint to go after the line civil service workers who were doing the job they were told to do,” Schor said. “I’m very leery or changing or gutting or really making big, big changes in civil service rules when they seem to be working really well.”

Cotter said the civil service system has “drifted away from its initial charge” of ending an early 20th century system of patronage jobs in state government that would turn over every time a new governor was elected.

“Now it’s gone so far the other way where it’s such a protected class that it really has several ill effects,” Cotter said.

Cotter and GOP Rep. Dan Lauwers of St. Clair County will unveil the constitutional amendment and accompanying legislation Thursday morning during a press conference at the Capitol.

To get on the November ballot, Cotter would need to get a two-thirds super majority in the 109-member House.

Republicans hold a 63-46 majority, with one Democratic seat vacant, meaning Cotter would need 73 votes plus a two-thirds majority of the Senate to get the proposal on the ballot.

There’s also an issue of timing for getting a constitutional amendment on the ballot. The Legislature has just 16 scheduled legislative work days in Lansing before the Sept. 9 ballot proposal deadline.

Cotter said he opted against proposing an entire elimination of the Civil Service Commission, knowing such a plan never attract any support from Democrats closely aligned with public employee unions.

“That would have been viewed as playing politics and it’s something we knew wasn’t going to accomplish anything,” Cotter said. “So I didn’t want to go that route.”

(517) 371-3661

Twitter: @ChadLivengood