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Conflict slows Duluth's civil service reform

Proposed changes to Duluth's civil service code will have to wait. Two competing proposals now have been placed before the Duluth City Council: one from city administration and an alternative version proposed by the Duluth police union. But the c...

Proposed changes to Duluth's civil service code will have to wait.

Two competing proposals now have been placed before the Duluth City Council: one from city administration and an alternative version proposed by the Duluth police union. But the council chose to hold off on any action Monday night.

"We're simply looking for an up or down vote," said Dave Montgomery, chief administrative officer for the city of Duluth, after the council adjourned.

"We're frustrated and disappointed with where we're at right now," he said. "We've worked very hard in response to requests from the council, and it's time to move forward."

Unions representing city workers have expressed concerns that civil service reforms designed to streamline Duluth's hiring processes have gone too far in eroding the authority of the civil service board. A civil service task force studied the city's civil service code and recommended Duluth overhaul outdated language with an eye toward also speeding a hiring process that now regularly takes three to six months to complete.

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Tom Maida, president of the Duluth Police Union, said representatives of his bargaining unit have met repeatedly with Montgomery and acknowledged some progress.

"Some changes have been made, but we have philosophical differences on what we think the role of the civil service board should be," he said.

Maida offered an alternative proposal that he said would preserve the civil service board as a body that approves hires, as opposed to an appellate body that comes into play only when it appears proper procedures have not been followed.

Montgomery said city administration has been working for 2½ months to fashion a mutually acceptable ordinance.

"We've made significant modifications to our proposal that have watered down what the task force had proposed. We were able to accept that, because the overall gains were still significant," he said.

But Montgomery said city administration has reached a point where he feels further revisions cannot be justified.

Council President Dan Hartman praised Montgomery for his work.

"City administration has come a long way," Hartman said. "But so many changes have been made that we want time to review and really understand them."

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The council received the latest proposed civil service revisions on Thursday.

Hartman said the civil service code is complicated, and councilors want to make sure they're making an informed decision. He said he hopes to bring the proposal to an up or down vote when the council next meets Feb. 27.

But the city administration's proposal won't be the only one up for consideration. Councilor Patrick Boyle introduced the Duluth Police Union's suggested changes Monday night, when the proposal received its first reading.

The council could approve either proposal when it next meets.

Maida said the union proposal probably isn't perfect but it does provide a more measured compromise and could be the basis for making many of the improvements the city sought.

Montgomery characterized the police proposal as "a complete start-over."

Councilor Jay Fosle expressed aggravation that city administration and unions hadn't been able to hash out their differences. Instead he said the council is being put in the difficult position of having to resolve a dispute.

"I think you could find something that works for everyone and then bring that to us," he said.

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Montgomery said the city has moved about as far as administration felt it comfortably could.

He said he will offer language in his proposal that would call for a review of the code changes after six months' time to see how they are working and make any modifications deemed necessary.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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