Being on the public payroll should not protect anyone from incompetence or malfeasance. Those holding jobs that involve the welfare of the public should be held to the highest standards of accountability for their performance. Because when they screw up, people get hurt.

That certainly was the case in Flint, where three civil servants have been criminally charged for their roles in allowing lead to seep into the drinking water.

It was easier to bring a criminal indictment against the three and others who either ignored warnings or failed to sound alarms in Flint than it would be to fire them.

That’s because most state workers enjoy civil service protections that make disciplining them for poor performance a monumental task. Civil service rules in Michigan require an arduous process for punishing workers for not doing their jobs, and dismissals are extremely rare. Even after Flint, where government workers up and down the bureaucracy failed, only one civil service employee has been fired.

House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, hopes to change that with a ballot initiative that would reform Michigan’s civil service laws. It’s a long overdue proposal that voters should embrace for their own good. They never know when their community will be the next Flint.

The legislative package would amend the state constitution to give departments the ability to “discipline or dismiss any employee who negatively impacts the department’s ability to accomplish its duties in a fair, timely, equitable and transparent manner,” according to Cotter’s description.

To become law, the reforms must get two-thirds support from the Legislature, and then be placed on the ballot for a public vote. In other words, it’s a long shot.

But it’s a worthwhile pursuit. Workers immune from accountability for their performance tend to become complacent. Too many develop an anything-goes attitude.

That was reflected in Flint, where employees of the departments of Health and Environmental Quality engaged in turf battles, didn’t communicate with each other and never developed the sense of urgency the crisis demanded.

With 48,000 state workers covered by civil service protections, bringing accountability to government is almost impossible.

Employees should be treated fairly, and they should not have to fear the political winds. But neither should their jobs be guaranteed, regardless of the quality of their performance.

Most of the state’s workforce is also represented by unions, giving them a double layer of protection.

A better ballot proposal would eliminate civil service altogether, or at least force employees to choose either the union or civil service, but not both.

But it will be hard enough to pass the limited reforms offered by Cotter. The Legislature should demonstrate that it takes the state’s role in the Flint crisis seriously by giving this package the two-thirds vote it needs.

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