This morning, I was one of only two Council Members to vote against a proposal to reclassify all of the Council Associates from civil service positions with union protections, to appointed positions without those protections.
Here's a little background. Each Council office has three members: the Council Member, her/his appointed Aide, and the Associate. In most offices, the Associate does much of the direct constituent service, schedules meetings, tracks the office budget, files, and otherwise provides administrative support. Associates are paid on an hourly basis, unlike CMs and Aides, who are salaried - a reflection of the common understanding that whereas CMs and Aides work irregular hours including numerous night meetings, Associates have more predictable daytime-only schedules.
I joined AFSCME local 9 in opposing the move to reclassify Associates as appointed positions. I understand the reasons that Council leadership is bringing this forward, and I agree that Council Members need greater capacity to hold their staff accountable. We have certainly had difficulty earlier this term with holding certain specific Associates accountable for less than stellar performance. It’s clear that the current management structure, in which Associates are accountable to the Clerk’s Office, could be improved.
However, I’m not convinced that the proposal to make these positions appointed is the best or only answer, and I do not believe that other options have been seriously considered. I agree that there will be some benefits to having appointed Associates, including clearer accountability to the Council Member and a greater capacity for elected officials to control the constituent relations of their offices. However, I believe that there are also some serious potential downsides. It will make the Associate position far more political than it has been historically. The ramifications of this are unclear, but it could negatively impact relations between Council offices. More importantly, with the capacity to bring on one’s “own people,” new Council Members could lose the invaluable institutional memory that our current Associates bring.
My office is a great example of this. My Associate, Nancy Olsen, worked for the past two Ward 2 Council Members, Paul Zerby and Joan Campbell. This has been a great help in understanding specific past issues. When my Aide and I started in January of 2006, we found that the Associates – our own and those of other offices – were one of the most helpful groups in helping us to understand the vagaries of Council procedure.
I have heard from some of the Associates, including my own, that they have serious concerns about being switched from civil service to appointed positions. For example, what happens to my Associate if I decide to appoint her, and then decline to run for another term? Will she be offered the option to return to a civil service position, or will she be terminated?
Most importantly, though, I simply do not believe that the Council can honestly make the findings we are required by ordinance to make before changing the Associates to appointed positions. Those findings are as follows:
20.1010. City council to establish positions. The city council may, pursuant to this article, establish unclassified positions in designated departments of the city that meet the following criteria:
(1) The person occupying the position must report to the head of the designated city department or the designated city department head's deputy.
(2) The person occupying the position must be part of the designated department head's management team.
(3) The duties of the position must involve significant discretion and substantial involvement in the development, interpretation, or implementation of city or department policy.
(4) The duties of the position must not primarily require technical expertise where continuity in the position would be significant.
(5) There is a need for the person occupying the position to be accountable to, loyal to, and compatible with the mayor, the city council, and the department head.
The city council must adopt findings on whether the criteria in this section are met before an unclassified position is established. The city council shall establish the terms and conditions of employment for all unclassified positions, or may delegate that function to the director of human resources. (2003-Or-131, § 1, 11-7-03)
Clearly criterion #5 is applicable. I believe that the rest are either highly dubious or flatly non-applicable. Criteria 1 and 2 only make sense if we decide that Council Members are “department heads,” which I think is simply not accurate. As a Council Member, I do not have sole authority over the staff of any department. And if the “department” I am heading is my Ward office, this proposal would produce “departments” composed entirely of "management."
Criterion #3 is similarly problematic. Perhaps it is different in other offices, but my Associate does not have “significant discretion” or “substantial involvement in the development, interpretation, or implementation” of policy. She does extremely valuable work but not, as far as I'm concerned, “development, interpretation or implementation” of policy. If the Council chooses to push this boundary this far, it’s difficult to see which City positions could not be considered appropriate to be changed to appointed positions.
Lastly, Criterion #4 is ambiguous at best. I am not sure that Associates have “technical expertise,” but I am convinced that “continuity in the position” is important.
I opposed this at Executive Committee before voting against it this morning, and I'm disappointed that this action passed by such a wide margin this morning.