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Goldwater report blasts government discipline procedures, highlights costs incurred

Mark Flatten spent 28 years as a newspaper reporter. Now he serves as an investigative reporter for the Goldwater Institute, a nonprofit advocacy and government watchdog group. With traditional media organizations struggling, Flatten says groups such as his are well-equipped to pursue journalism in the public interest. (Cronkite News Service Photos by Evan Wyloge)

Mark Flatten spent 28 years as a newspaper reporter. Now he serves as an investigative reporter for the Goldwater Institute, a nonprofit advocacy and government watchdog group. With traditional media organizations struggling, Flatten says groups such as his are well-equipped to pursue journalism in the public interest. (Cronkite News Service Photos by Evan Wyloge)

The lengthy reviews, administrative hurdles and general lack of swiftness that comes along with firing or disciplining government employees in Arizona sometimes invites dangerous and expensive outcomes, according to an extensive report from the Goldwater Institute, a libertarian government watchdog firm.

The report cites numerous examples of slowly moving disciplinary procedures that led to breaches of public safety, reinstatement of demonstrably unqualified workers and a two-year taxpayer cost of more than $1.6 million dollars in paid administrative leave while disciplinary procedures were being reviewed.

The report leads with the story of convicted murderer and death-row inmate Dale Hausner, who worked at Sky Harbor International Airport until August 4, 2006, the day after he was arrested as the prime suspect in the Serial Shooter murder case, which ended with six killings and 19 other shootings over the previous 14 months.

But Hausner appealed his firing, claiming that he had been dismissed without adhering to proper administrative procedures. Although Hausner didn’t remain on the payroll, his appeal remained active for the next three years, finally ending when Hausner withdrew his claim a month after being convicted and sentenced to death.

While the Goldwater Institute’s investigative reporter Mark Flatten highlighted some of the most egregious of instances he came across, his research drew from a review of more than 10,000 pages of documents, spanning 615 cases from Phoenix, state agencies and Tucson schools. Flatten also interviewed more than 30 elected officials, agency administrators, union representatives and government employees who had been disciplined.

Some of the cases involved sexual misconduct, domestic violence and public-safety breaches, which the report indicates could have been avoided by removing obstacles that prevent swift discipline of government employees.

Several factors have made it difficult to fire or discipline government employees in Arizona, but the main problem may be the civic-service protections at the state and municipal level, according to the report. These rules, which have been affirmed by U.S. Supreme Court precedent, have placed government jobs in the category of constitutionally protected property rights, meaning they can only be infringed upon after being reviewed in formalized due process.

When any disciplinary action moves through those review processes, any number of small snags may lead to dismissal or diminishment of the discipline that’s been ordered.

In schools, policies negotiated by unions often require discipline to be meted out in accordance with seniority, resulting in a different, but similarly restraining disciplinary system.

The Goldwater Institute’s report includes suggestions to improve the disciplinary process for government employees by reducing safety breaches and taxpayer costs.

The report outlined changes made by Texas, Georgia and Florida, and held up those reforms as examples for Arizona.

Texas implemented a shift to an entirely “at-will” employment system for state workers in 1985, in which an agency director’s decision to discipline an employee is final. The change eliminated the mandatory review procedures, leaving only an appeal in court as a way to challenge disciplinary action.

Georgia put a similar system in place in 1996, but left employees hired or promoted before the change with their protections. Now, 21 percent of state workers retain civil service protections.

Florida passed a half-measure in 2001, leaving the protections in place for a portion of state employees, and instituting a new but weakened public employee relations commission to hear appeals from employees who were still protected.

Changes like the ones made by Texas, Georgia and Florida didn’t come without criticisms that they could lead to a different set of problems, though. The risk of special treatment and abuse of disciplinary powers has been explored by researchers, according to the report.

Outside research cited by the report showed that there was no significant evidence to show that any of the changes to civil-service protections in those states had resulted in special treatment for employees. It also found no evidence that the changes led to a more favorable ratio of good to bad employees.

The report concludes by saying that there is little interest by Arizona’s lawmakers to make similar changes. Flatten noted that unions would be likely to launch campaigns against such reforms and government employees would be likely to support the status quo.

The report said Gov. Jan Brewer has initiated a study into whether reforms would be appropriate at the state level, but that there is no indication as to whether the study will lead to a recommendation for change from Brewer’s office.

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