A bill awaiting action by Gov. Jan Brewer would change the personnel systems for all Arizona counties except Maricopa, denying merit-system protections for all new hires and taking away those rights for current employees as they are promoted or accept pay raises.
Supporters say the changes will help weed out poor-performing workers and make county government more responsive to elected officials, while critics said they’re unfair to current workers and fling the door open to political favoritism.
The bill gradually evolved during the legislative session, with key provisions not being added until the final night of the legislative session that ended early the morning of April 20.
The bill started as a measure to allow counties to give at-will status to more positions. At-will status means employees can be fired without cause. Protections under the merit system include the right to appeal an unjustified firing.
“It’s very difficult to get rid of an employee who on the merit system who is not doing their job. You can spend your time documenting, documenting, documenting,” said the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Judy Burges of Sun City West.
Under the bill, newly hired employees in all counties except Maricopa would have at-will status. Also, current employees leave the merit system if they voluntarily accept new assignments or get salary increases.
Burges said those provisions were lifted from a proposal developed for the state personnel system by Brewer, who has until Monday to act on the bills on her desk.
Burges said Maricopa County, which is home to roughly three of every five Arizonans, was left out of the bill because the county wants more time to consider the change.
Legislators didn’t act on Brewer’s state-personnel proposal, which only surfaced publicly in the final days of the session.
Roman Ulman, an Arizona official for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the bill represents an attempt by majority Republicans in the Legislature to politicize government hiring.
“They’re trying to create a spoils system,” he said.
The merit system’s protections enable public employees to feel secure enough in their jobs to challenge corruption and other wrongdoing, he said.
The Senate approved the bill on a party-line vote, while majority Republicans where split on the bill in the House’s 31-28 vote.
During that vote, several supporters of the bill said elected officials and government managers need more clout in dealing with subordinates.
“When you’re elected to office, you expect the people who work for you, under you, to support you and sometimes they subvert you when you take hold of the office,” said Rep. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista.
Republican Rep. Cecil Ash of Mesa said all employment should be at will, whether in government or private business, to help boost productivity.
As a former employer, Ash said, “I wanted the right to terminate anybody really, if I couldn’t really catch them in wrongdoing or for no reason at all.”
Rep. David Burnell Smith, R-Phoenix, said it wasn’t fair to workers to lift their job protections just because they get promoted or accept raise.
The County Supervisors Association of Arizona reluctantly acceded to the last-minute expansion of the bill, lobbyist Todd Madeksza said.
Otherwise, the bill’s legislative supporters would have removed provisions that gave county supervisors some discretion on removing positions from the merit system, Madeksza said.
Because the bill was revised so late, its ramifications are unclear, including whether sheriff’s deputies would be included and whether a cost-of-living pay adjustment would change an employee’s status, he said.
The final bill could help counties reward good employees and encourage poor-performing ones to do better, he said.
Some county supervisors like the bill while others are concerned about weakening the merit system, Madeksza said.
“It’s hard for me to say we support the bill,” he said.