Exile on Jones Street: Personnel crisis

1
37

by Kirk Ross

Let us pray that somewhere in a cinderblock-lined inner sanctum of the legislative building there’s a serious conversation taking place about how to undo some of the damage from the disastrous decision to more than quadruple the number of political appointees in state government.

There have been a lot of foolish decisions by the legislature in recent years, but one look around and you can see how making more positions subject to the whim of the governor — this governor — is turning out to be a doozy.

For the past two sessions, the legislature has afforded the governor full control over who serves in roughly 1,500 position. It started with a provision in the 2011 budget that came across as a welcome present from the General Assembly to Pat McCrory who was well on his way to trouncing Bev Perdue. Perdue had control over about 400 positions. The legislature capped her successor’s at 1,000. Last year, the honorables granted the governor another 500 positions.

The idea was pretty simple: to put more of the governor’s appointees into place faster and to quickly consolidate the administration’s influence over the workings of the bureaucracy.

It’s certainly not new for these guys to adjust the numbers. When Republican Jim Martin was elected in 1984, the legislature dialed back the number of so-called “exempt” positions. Exempt as in exempt from the State Personnel Act, which mind you is not exactly the Magna Carta of workers’ rights.

But there’s no comparison between past alterations and the magnitude of what was granted the McCrory administration and its potential impact on how the state operates.

The risk, of course, is in the question of loyalty. There are places far down the food chain that you don’t want political appointees to inhabit. There are decision to be made, often quickly, where worries of political fallout shouldn’t be in the mix.

In the case of the Department of Health and Human Services we’ve already seen what happens when a new administrator runs off key employees and decides to lead by disruption.

Last week, DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos testily testified at a legislative hearing that her department was suffering from high numbers of job vacancies due to low salaries. While salaries are no doubt part of the problem, the thought of going to work for a combative, chronic buck-passer who is secure in her position thanks to a role as political fundraiser isn’t helping.

Wos may be the poster-appointee for everything wrong with over-politicizing certain parts of state government, but she’s not alone.

We’re hearing more and more former Department of Environment and Natural Resources officials detail concerns that for the first time political appointees serve in roles dealing with the health and safety of our air and water, jobs that used to be off-limits for anyone but the most qualified professionals.

The morale in that department, whipsawed by years of budget cuts and a massive, legislature-mandated review of all regulations, is hitting rock bottom. Instead of smiling, being happy and enjoying the process as DENR Secretary John Skvarla famously suggested, many of DENR’s top administrators and scientists are leaving. Others are being summarily shown the door with breathtaking disregard for their service and professionalism in favor of people less qualified but a little closer to the administration.

All this and the thousands of other cases filtering through state government in the name of feel-good but meaningless terms like “efficiency” and “streamlining.” These are just code words for a staff that will roll over even when the policy doesn’t make sense, and it’s dangerous for a lot of reasons.

Without pushback from people loyal to the state and their principles rather than a political party or administration, we run a risk that the safeguards entrusted to the government will be discarded, and that the workings of government itself — as we have already seen — will grow more opaque.

But there is a chance that a change in direction may be on the horizon.

The blunders of this administration may have already cost the governor a second term. With the threat that the next governor could be a Democrat, legislators will likely discover that they’re uncomfortable with all those exempt positions.

In the meantime, it would be a good idea if a few of the adults on Jones Street intervene in the current patronage free-for-all. It’s only been two years, but I think we’ve had about all the efficiency and streamlining we can handle.