Civil Service Reform Fades From City Charter Debate


In the months immediately after the creation of the city’s elected charter commission, Mayor Richard Riordan quietly decided to duck a fight over the job security enjoyed by most city workers--a move that continues to reverberate through the charter reform effort today.

In the early stages of the charter reform debate, some thought that it would be used by Riordan to attack the Civil Service protection that some liken to tenure.

If anyone were in a position to tackle Civil Service, Riordan seemed the likely candidate. A termed-out mayor with no obvious political ambitions beyond his current job, Riordan is a multimillionaire venture capitalist who had shown no hesitation in challenging workers when he was behind such corporate restructurings as the one at Mattel. What’s more, he had campaigned in 1993 partly on a pledge to privatize city services.

So it came as a surprise to some observers when Riordan announced last fall that he would not make Civil Service a significant part of his campaign to retool the charter.


“The city of Los Angeles’ work force has served the public well,” Riordan told members of the appointed commission late last year. “It is important to continue the strong Los Angeles tradition of Civil Service protections that insulate this work force from political pressures and ensure that hiring and promotion decisions are based on merit.”

Although most city residents are not touched directly by Civil Service protections, they are a central issue in a long-running debate over government efficiency. Adopted by voters in 1902 as part of the Progressive-era reforms of Los Angeles government, Civil Service was intended to insulate government employees from political pressure. Critics counter that the system provides so much job security that it has become difficult to motivate city workers, leading to a hidebound and inefficient bureaucracy.

When Riordan decided to support the Civil Service rules, most observers saw that as a politically motivated decision. It sidelined the public employee unions who might otherwise have fought to defeat a new charter, and it turned what could have been a powerful mayoral adversary into at least a temporary ally. It also withdrew the mayor from a fight that he seemed likely to lose.

But, in addition, it limited the scope of reform and deprived more ambitious reformers of a bargaining tool that might have helped them extract concessions from city worker unions. Moreover, in the view of some charter reformers, it created an illusory alliance between city workers and the mayor--one that may now be on the verge of breaking down.


Today, as not one but two charter commissions attempt to hammer out a new future for city government, some participants blame Riordan for scuttling what may have been their best chance to tackle the power of city unions.

“The tactic was good for the mayor and good for labor,” said one insider, “but it was bad for charter reform.”

Noelia Rodriguez, the mayor’s press secretary, attributed criticism of Riordan’s decision not to attack Civil Service protections to a misunderstanding of the mayor’s intentions all along.

“It was never his intention to go after Civil Service,” Rodriguez said. “The mayor has a very solid track record in supporting labor since before he was mayor.”


And yet, Riordan’s attempt to solidify his relationship with city workers has not won over their leaders. Although grateful not to be facing a broadside attack on their job security, they continue to view his charter reform efforts with skepticism.

Julie Butcher, who heads the local branch of the Service Employees International Union, complained that although Riordan backed off from what many expected would be an effort to gut Civil Service for many workers, he remains committed to stripping some top managers of their Civil Service status and wants more authority to remove top officials whom he sees as failing to perform.

“Timid general managers who are politically beholden to the mayor are not good for my members,” Butcher said.

The mayor’s decision to step back from a possible fight with city unions had another, harder-to-gauge effect on the reform debate. It left organized labor without a clear sense of what it wanted.


Organized labor had geared up to fight for its place in a new City Charter. Labor backed a slate of candidates for the elected commission and then saw the bulk of them win, giving city unions a powerful place at the negotiating table.

In a large measure, however, labor sought that place to stop two possibilities that it feared in a new charter: widespread privatization of public services and the dismantling of Civil Service protection. Once those issues were effectively withdrawn, the city’s leading unions were left without a clear mandate of what they hoped to accomplish through the process.

As a result, labor leaders have been surprisingly quiet in recent months about the reform efforts. With a few notable exceptions--Los Angeles County Federation of Labor chief Miguel Contreras’ outspoken opposition to the creation of powerful neighborhood councils that he believes might hinder growth; Butcher’s support for the same councils, which she believes will provide new jobs for city employees and improve services to residents--labor’s objectives are murky.

“This has been in many ways a time for labor regrouping,” one charter reform insider said. “But labor will be back. And it will be back big.”


And when it returns, some insiders warn that Riordan’s truce with city workers may abruptly end. Butcher and her colleagues are preparing to fight the mayor on his efforts to gain more authority over city departments.

And other fights clearly lie ahead: The neighborhood council debate, the tussle over the size and power of the City Council, and a variety of work-rule questions all seem certain to draw the active interest of city workers, probably in opposition to the recommendations of the mayor.

What does seem clear is that although labor may have things to gain from charter reform, it no longer has much to fear.

Without a significant advocate to press for Civil Service reform, the issue seems likely to fade from the charter debate altogether. The appointed commission, whose recommendations will be forwarded to the City Council for its consideration, shows little inclination to tackle the issue. Charley M. Mims, a member of that panel and representative of organized labor, has taken pains to protect worker rights in many of the commission’s deliberations, and there is no member of that board pushing for a sweeping reexamination of city worker protections.


That commission will hear a report next week on possible changes to Civil Service. Erwin Chemerinsky, chairman of the panel, said he expects no wholesale revisions, largely because without Riordan’s push, there’s no movement for such change.