The Mobile County Personnel Board has remained tight-lipped about legislative efforts to tweak some of its 77-year-old policies, but despite several agency heads in the merit system agreeing that a change is needed, others are skeptical of HB 371.

“This bill doesn’t take away any of the protection the employees have. This is just a way to allow some of the entities to get around the bureaucracy that slows the hiring process down,” Rep. Chris Pringle (R- Mobile) said of his bill. “We’re not out to hurt anyone in any shape or form.”

Pringle said he’s found both support for and opposition to the changes in the civil service system he’s pursuing on behalf of the Mobile County Health Department (MCHD) and several of the county’s smaller cities.

The bill covers four changes, but those causing the most concern deal with hiring, rehiring and the policies governing layoffs. One would allow agencies in the merit system the option to handle the recruitment and hiring from advertising to interviews.

The agency would need a human resources department to handle the additional work, and the personnel board would retain the power and authority to supervise the process through a yearly audit, also outlined in the legislation.

Mobile County Health Department Director Dr. Bert Eichold. (YouTube)

Mobile County Health Department Director Dr. Bert Eichold. (YouTube)

According to its own reporting, the personnel board only started electronically processing applicants in 2013, and MCHD Director Dr. Bert Eichold said the “small changes” in HB 371 could help streamline a system created “before World War II.”

“We’ve processed 227 persons in the last four years, and our longest wait was 172 days. The average is 52 days. That’s a long time,” Eichold said. “We want the best applicants, but if you’re number one in your class, how long do you think it takes for you to get a job? The answer is, not long.”

On April 11, Eichold joined Pringle and mayors from Bayou La Batre and Satsuma in seeking support for the bill from the Mobile County Commission. Presiding over the second largest group in the merit system, all three county commissioners agreed some changes were needed, but none was prepared to fully support HB 371 as is.

Merceria Ludgood

Merceria Ludgood

“I certainly understand the frustration with how long it takes to get a [hire] list, but for me to be able to support this, I’d have to be sure that we have put the safeguards in place to make sure we’re not putting ourselves in a position where municipalities could go back to the bad old days where they were hiring friends, friends of friends and friends’ kids while pushing out significant segments of the community,” Commissioner Merceria Ludgood said.

Ludgood, a former personnel board attorney, went on to criticize the approach being used, telling Eichold at the meeting everyone might “be better served by a study group” examining the board and its “range of issues.” She said using the Legislature makes it feel change is being “pushed down” and causes “fear for employees.”

“I think, if this is going to move, you’ve got to create an opportunity for people to feel like their concerns have been heard,” Ludgood said. “It doesn’t do you any good, in my judgment, to keep introducing it and then it can’t even get out of a delegation.”

Eichold said HB 371 would be a good start at making incremental changes, adding that studying “too many changes at a time” would have a worse reception and likely push the issue “another 40 years down the road.”

While concerns over the integrity in hiring took precedence at the commission meeting, another aspect of the bill has raised the interest of city employees. Regarding layoffs, the “last in, first out” approach would be abandoned to allow employers to base layoffs on the needs of the agency, with consideration to an employee’s service rating.

Discussing this provision, Bayou La Batre Mayor Annette Johnson told commissioners her city was recently forced to retain a more senior employee who was “unable to perform” a certain task and lay off a younger, more capable employee. Eichold said similar situations arise in his department with new hires in more vital positions.

“In our case, the person happens to be a disease control expert on viral infections,” he said. “That would be very important for us to retain that person if we were dealing with the Zika virus or something like that.”

As is the case now, the personnel board would have the final approval on any layoffs submitted, and employees would still have the ability to appeal the decision. Still, some employees — specifically those with the city of Mobile —  seem worried the provision could be used to terminate employees reaching their pension age.

George Talbot, director of communications and external affairs for Mayor Sandy Stimpson, said the administration was “studying the bill” but is “not contemplating any layoffs in city government at this time.”

“Certainly, we support any changes that would allow us more flexibility in hiring,” Talbot added.

Other changes include allowing agencies to buy employees out of unused vacation time and adding a condition for rehiring applicants that would only make them eligible for a position they left. Eichold said that would keep agencies from taking time to process people who “aren’t really qualified or interested” in a position just because they’re on a rehire list.

Even with some level of support from several entities, Pringle seemed to suggest his bill wasn’t in the best shape to move forward, telling commissioners “it’s not going very far right now.” As local legislation, it would only take two House votes or one Senate vote in the local delegation to scrap the bill entirely.

In the meantime, Pringle said he’s working to “explain the bill to the people who are opposed to it,” to clarify what it actually means. He said he’d like to set up a public meeting for anybody with an interest in the bill, but so far none has been set.

Lagniappe made numerous attempts to reach Personnel Director Donald Dees and members of the board, but telephone message and emails received no response.

House Bill 371