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Duluth council puts changes to hiring code on hold

City councilors will continue to wrestle with Duluth's civil service code for at least another two weeks. On Monday night, the council decided to amend an ordinance proposed by city administration that would overhaul Duluth's civil service system...

City Hall

City councilors will continue to wrestle with Duluth's civil service code for at least another two weeks.

On Monday night, the council decided to amend an ordinance proposed by city administration that would overhaul Duluth's civil service system to help streamline the hiring of city employees and updating portions of the code.

Several resident speakers advised the city to exercise caution in rewriting the code, including Joel Sipress, who recommended the council reject the proposal. He encouraged councilors to think not only about their confidence in the current mayor but future occupants of the office.

"The civil service system was created to prevent executives from turning public jobs into goodies that are handed out in return for political loyalty," he said.

Alan Netland, president of the Northeast Area Labor Council, said city administration had demonstrated little respect for its employees and the unions that represent them. Representatives of the Duluth Police Union, the Duluth Firefighters Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees all urged the council to reject the proposed civil service ordinance.

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"This is strictly a railroad job. It's a power play that puts you, as a council, in a difficult position," Netland said.

Marshall Stenerson, chairman of the Duluth Civil Service Board, said the administration's plan would relegate the board to a position of simply hearing appeals rather than being involved in the approval process for new jobs and hires.

"I think most of you would agree, with few exceptions, that transparency is a hallmark of good government. The civil service board is the window that provides that transparency," he said, noting that all board meetings are open to the public.

The ordinance placed before the council Monday would have allowed a human resources director and the city's chief administrative officer to take action behind closed doors, without consulting the civil service board. The Duluth City Council would still be required to sign off on the creation of new positions and new hires.

But Councilor Emily Larson offered an amendment Monday that would require the Duluth Civil Service Board to sign off any new job descriptions before the city can create a new post or modify an existing position.

Her amendment passed by a 7-2 vote, with Councilors Garry Krause and Jim Stauber voting in the minority.

Krause contended that by requiring council approval, the proposed ordinance would still provide sufficient transparency.

Stauber said he would vote against the amendment because he would prefer to simply vote down the entire proposed ordinance.

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"I've been on this council for 11 years now, and it worries me that tonight I agree with Joel Sipress. But what worries me even more is that I agree with Alan Netland," joked Stauber, usually a conservative voice on the council.

Larson's amendment represented a substantial change, meaning the ordinance will need to undergo another reading before the council can act on it. That pushes the earliest date for a council vote to March 12.

David Montgomery, Duluth's chief administrative officer, said city administration would reluctantly accept the ordinance modification proposed by Larson.

But Montgomery said he took strong exception with any suggestion that city administration had tried to rush through changes to the civil service board and had not demonstrated respect for due process.

"This has been a poster child of process," he said.

Montgomery pointed out that a task force was appointed to evaluate the city's hiring processes in the spring and twice reported to the council, first with some of its findings and later with recommendations. These recommendations formed the foundation for the proposed ordinance, which was introduced in November.

In the past three months, Montgomery said the city has met repeatedly with union representatives and members of the civil service board to make modifications and address some of their concerns.

He said the proposed ordinance was an effort to modernize the code, not to gut civil service protections.

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"It would continue to be a transparent process, and we fully intend to maintain protections for future job applicants and city employees," he said.

Councilor Sharla Gardner said she wanted to take the time to get any code changes right. She stressed the council has a responsibility to ensure checks and balances remain in place.

"It's our job to make sure there is a proper balance in city government," she said.

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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