MANKATO — The Mankato City Council votes Monday on whether to eliminate the Joint Civil Service Commission, a three-member body that controls employment, promotion and discipline of police and firefighters.
A city staff report argues the protections afforded by the commission are “redundant and inefficient in an organization which utilizes a recruitment and hiring process based on merit ... .” The report was written by City Attorney Eileen Wells and Human Resources Director Krista Amos.
In essence, the city is arguing the commission has been replaced by employment laws, union protections and the city’s own policies.
These objections are not new.
On November 7, 1986, The Free Press published a news analysis with the headline, “Civil service: has time passed it by?” According to that story, the Police Civil Service Commission was created in 1937 by unanimous vote to “remove the Mankato Police Department from politics.”
The police chief at the time, Glenn Gabriel, called it a “dinosaur.” His arguments were similar to today’s, that the protections it afforded were no longer necessary.
Gabriel, though, had been caught in disputes with the commission. They included a conflict over whether Gabriel could arrest anyone because he was not technically a member of the department.
Still, he didn’t think civil service was going anywhere.
“All the talking in the world will never convince people they don’t need civil service because it’s a security blanket,” he said in 1986.
The city still plans to solicit citizen input through its Public Safety Advisory Committee, City Manager Pat Hentges said.
“It’s not the citizen involvement” that’s the problem with the commission, he said, “it’s the onerous process.”
There is a difference, though, between the “input” of an advisory body like the new committee and the authority of a civil service commission, as defined by state law.
According to the city report, the commission has “absolute control and supervision over employment, promotion, discharge and suspension of all officers and employees of the Mankato Department of Public Safety.”
In practice, the commission’s control is not absolute, but its authority is significant.
In hiring, for example, its members maintain a list of available applicants, and ranks them.
This process of interviewing and ranking applicants, Hentges said, takes between 90 and 120 days.
Once that’s done, the city can only choose an applicant from the top three candidates, known as the “Rule of Three.”
Hentges said that puts the city at a hiring disadvantage with cities that don’t have a civil service commission and can be more nimble.
“We have openings in the city almost continually,” he said. “If you’re hamstrung by a list of people that has to be maintained and current, you’re going to miss a lot of opportunities.”
If abolishing the commission required a simple majority of council members it would likely have happened long ago.
But a civil service commission can only be dissolved by the unanimous vote of the City Council or a two-thirds vote of the citizens.
While there has been no vote on the commission, the council has discussed the issue informally. It appears that Mayor Eric Anderson is the only councilor who does not support the abolition of the commission.
When reached Friday, Anderson said he hadn’t made up his mind.
“I’m still struggling with certain aspects of this and trying to be as open-minded as I can,” he said.
Last September, he voted against merging the Civil Service Commission with the Public Safety Advisory Committee. He said at the time he was uncomfortable with the commission being eliminated in the future, according to minutes from that meeting. The merger measure passed 6-1.
The advisory committee passed a motion that unanimously recommended the civil service commission be dissolved.
Kathy Trauger, who resigned last year after many years of service, said the dissolution would be OK with her as long as regular community residents still get a say in public safety.
“It doesn’t necessarily have to be set up the way the civil service commission was as far as I’m concerned,” she said.
Earl Cummings, a former commission member who opposed the merger, declined to comment because he’s moved out of the area.
Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, said civil service rules persist in the state’s big cities. But he said some suburban departments see them as archaic.
Speaking in general about such commissions — Flaherty hasn’t heard from his Mankato members — he praised them as a “great way to provide harmony in the workplace.”
“It spells out, very specifically, expectations and it does specify safeguards, as well,” he said.
Monday’s City Council meeting begins at 7 p.m. in the Intergovernmental Center.