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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, January 26, 2006

Merit should matter

A civil-service system, most of us would agree, was a good and necessary reform.

Government jobs should not be awarded based on who you know, but rather on what you know. Merit should matter, not patronage.

After the Civil War, as our cities became industrialized and mushroomed in size, political machines took hold. They offered services, particularly for the growing working class and burgeoning immigrant population, that the government did not.

Jane Addams, the social reformer who founded Hull House for Chicago’s poor, wrote that, through regular acts of "simple kindness" towards their constituents, political bosses in growing cities, although corrupt, maintained loyalty.

Their machines would put a turkey on the table for Christmas, fill a coal bin in winter, find a job for someone who needed it. Chicago had Richard Daley, Cincinnati had George Cox, New York City had William Tweed, and Albany had Dan O’Connell.

In New York, Boss Tweed met his downfall after The New York Times published stories documenting the corruption in the construction of the New York Courthouse, started in 1862 and not completed a decade later. Tweed was convicted in 1871 and died in prison in 1878.

After Rutherford B. Hayes became President in 1877, he enacted federal civil service reform.

The movement for reform had grown as social services increased; government began providing what the old political machines had offered.

Frances Perkins — who later became Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s secretary of labor and still later, under President Harry Truman, served on the United States Civil Service Commission — worked first as an aid to New York’s governor, Alfred E. Smith. Smith had started his career as a machine politician but ended as a social reformer.

When Smith died in 1944, two of his old political cronies from Tammany Hall were said to have speculated at his funeral on why he had become a social crusader — they attributed the change to Perkins.

The civil-service system in New York has grown over the years. The state’s Department of Civil Service now reports that nearly 400,000 local-government employees and over 160,000 state employees are part of the system.

Its mission, says the state’s Department of Civil Service, is "to promote a partnership with our customers that encompasses best practice personnel systems by providing innovative, cost-effective, and efficient solutions for change and diversity based on fitness, merit, and equality of opportunity."

That sounds good. But we’ve recently began to question just how cost-effective and efficient the system is.

In our town of Guilderland, one Town Hall worker has already lost her job and the supervisor says a half-dozen more may follow.


Because required tests were not administered when they should have been. The town points to the county, the county to the state or back to the town. But it’s the workers who are being left in the lurch. And the town’s citizens, too.

"It’s not fair and it’s not right," Thadeus Ausfeld, who runs the town’s water plant, told our reporter, Jarrett Carroll.

Ausfeld is concerned that qualified state-certified workers who know how to run the plant will be replaced with inexperienced newcomers if they fail the Civil Service exam, which is now — belatedly — required of them.

All three of his employees, two of them with more than a decade of experience, were suddenly required to take exams, he said.

"I believe there is some type of problem with this system," Ausfeld said, "when I have someone with 12 years’ experience who never took the exam, and all of a sudden has to when they should have done so in the first two years of training if they were going to test them."

The employees at the water plant are all certified by the state to run the plant, he said, and training a new worker would take at least two years.

Referring to a list kept by Civil Service of top-scorers on the exam, Ausfeld said, "There’s not anyone on that list who can run this plant. I’m not comfortable having someone with no experience run this plant."

Neither are we. Our health as a community depends on the men who run the complex equipment that filters and purifies our water.

Beyond that, as taxpayers in town, we all lose if someone with experience is forced out of a job and we have to pay for two years of training a new hire.

After our story on the town’s dilemma ran earlier this month, we heard from workers at local public libraries in a similar quandary.

At least two employees at the Guilderland Public Library and one at the Voorheesville Public Library are losing their jobs, and more replacements may be on the way.

Many of the workers who are about to take a Civil Service exam have no study guides or practice exams, said Gail Sacco, director of Voorheesville’s library.

One of her employees, with 15 years of experience, must now leave her job.

The director of the county’s Civil Service Department conceded that the limited types of guides the county offers are mainly for entry-level positions. Many employees can prepare for the exams from the experience they gain at their work, she said.

Several civil servants in Guilderland disagree.

William West, superintendent of water and wastewater management for Guilderland, says the Civil Service tests do not reflect what jobs like water treatment in small towns entail.

"The exams are so generic in nature, it’s hard to pertain to certain jobs," he said.

"It’s tough to take a trainee or a laborer and move them up, and they have years of experience for the job," said West, "and now they have to take an exam."

What would Frances Perkins, who said she worked for "the millions of forgotten, plain common workingmen," say about this"

If the civil-service system is to work as it was meant to, exams must fit the job, workers must be provided with guides, and governments must be sure workers are tested from the start — not years after the fact.

The current debacle, quite simply, is not fair — not to the workers and not to the citizens they serve.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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