Eighty years ago, California voters tightened up the state’s weak civil-service system to counter the corrupt practice of politicians padding public payrolls with family members, friends and political supporters.
However, the Legislature was exempted from the ballot measure’s provisions.
Later, when laws on open records, open meetings and collective bargaining were imposed on state and local governments, the Legislature exempted itself.
Over several decades, mostly in response to journalistic revelations, the Legislature has slowly granted access to its once-closed records on how it spends money on itself.
The Legislature still exempts itself, however, from open-meeting laws. If a majority of a city council meets privately to discuss city business other than a few specific matters, it’s a criminal violation. But majorities of Assembly or Senate members routinely hold private “caucuses” to orchestrate what they’ll do publicly and it’s perfectly legal.
Back to that civil-service exemption.
It allows members of the Legislature, and the senior managers they employ, to hire whomever they wish for whatever reason.
Not surprisingly, the Legislature is therefore infested with the same kind of personal and political patronage that civil service was adopted to prevent.
It’s common knowledge that legislators hand staff jobs to political operatives, but as a lengthy article by Sacramento Bee reporter Laurel Rosenhall details, the inside game appears to involve senior legislative staffers as well.
Rosenhall told us how numerous relatives and friends of high-ranking Senate managers have been placed on the legislative payroll, and cited a questionable case in the Assembly as well.
Years of private grumbling broke into the open when a Senate sergeant-at-arms – son of the Senate’s personnel manager – became involved in a fatal off-duty shooting outside his home and was found to have drugs in his system at the time.
The sergeant-at-arms was fired, his boss resigned from his post under fire for not telling Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg about the drugs, and Steinberg has ordered an investigation of nepotism allegations.
However that turns out, it’s high time to repeal the Legislature’s exemption from civil service. There’s absolutely no reason why about 90 percent of its workers should not be governed by rules that virtually all other state and local government agencies, including courts, must obey.
Each legislator could have a few exempt employees, just as there are a few exempts in state agencies, but rank-and-file employees – clerks, secretaries, sergeants-at-arms, lawyers, furniture movers, etc. – should not only be civil servants but subject to unionization.
If nothing else, it’s highly hypocritical for the Legislature to impose personnel rules on everyone else that it refuses to follow itself.
Dan Walters is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee. Reach him as firstname.lastname@example.org.