Civil Service Commissioners clashed with Long Beach’s top leaders last week over a proposed charter amendment that would fundamentally change how the city hires employees, something commissioners have pushed back on even though city officials say it is necessary to speed up a slow-moving process that’s resulted in hundreds of job vacancies.

Mayor Rex Richardson, City Manager Tom Modica and other top employees started visiting Long Beach’s various commissions on Wednesday to brief them on the proposal, which would centralize hiring in the city’s Human Resources Department. Currently, the Civil Service Department tests and ranks applicants before they can be hired, but splitting hiring duties between Civil Service and Human Resources is an outdated model that slows down the process, according to the mayor and city manager.

Richardson pitched the change during this year’s State of the City address, and to move it forward, the City Council could vote to put it on the November ballot where voters would have to approve it for the changes to take effect.

In a tense meeting Wednesday, commissioners that oversee the Civil Service department were upset at how quickly the city was moving to get the proposal in front of voters, something they said limited how much input they could give on the idea.

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“We are talking about a major change in the way the city operates and you’re saying to us, to essentially make your deadline, which is a self-imposed deadline of this November election,” said Commissioner Erik Frost Hollins.

The city is already meeting with its employee labor unions about the proposal and any major changes could restart that process, which needs to be finished by March so that a finalized version of the proposal can be sent to the City Council by April 16 in order to keep it on track to be on the November ballot.

Frost Hollins and other Civil Service commissioners have pushed back on the core of the proposal, saying the city should explore other ways to speed up hiring without fundamentally changing the process, which they argue is intended to preserve fairness and root out bias.

“What would happen if all the energy being put into the charter amendment went into having conversations about fixing these issues?” Commissioner Joen Garnica said Wednesday.

The hiring process has been plagued by delays caused by bureaucracy and miscommunication. On average it takes seven months or more to hire positions, which has led to a citywide shortage of workers as the vacancy rate has eclipsed 21%.

Civil Service commissioners have accused the city’s department managers of adding to those delays by leaving positions open if they don’t like the list of eligible candidates the Civil Service Department prepares for them, but city officials said Wednesday that isn’t the full story.

Christopher Koontz, director of the city’s Community Development Department — which oversees things like building inspections, zoning and development — said that sometimes people don’t show up for interviews, can’t pass background checks and, in some cases, applicants have opted out of the process after realizing they were unqualified for the job they were seeking.

“It’s killing our employees to have high vacancies,” Koontz said. “I have no desire to hold back the hiring process.”

Last week’s meeting came shortly after the city released draft language of the proposed amendment. In addition to shifting most hiring responsibilities to Human Resources, which is overseen by the city manager, the proposal includes local hiring preferences for residents, students of area colleges and existing part-time employees.

City management has said that centralizing the hiring process won’t result in the city going away from a merit-based hiring system, something the Civil Service process and commission are in place to safeguard.

The Civil Service Commission would still hear appeals from employees who allege there was bias or unfairness in the hiring or disciplinary process. However, the current proposal moves investigative powers away from the commission and into the city manager’s office and would require the City Council to initiate an investigation, according to the draft language.

Modica, the city manager, has said a lack of qualified candidates sent over from the Civil Service Department has added to hiring delays and driven up the city’s job vacancy rate.

The city, he said, has already taken measures to speed up other parts of the hiring process by eliminating things like drug tests and physical exams for jobs where they’re not necessary.

The city is hoping to get its hiring timeline down to 90 business days, which is about four and a half months.

Despite pushback from the Civil Service Commission, city leaders appear steadfast in their plan to ask the City Council to put the issue on the ballot where the public would have the final say.

“It’s not my decision, it’s not your decision, it’s the voters’ decision,” Richardson told the commission last week.

The commission is expected to hold another meeting Thursday evening to continue the discussion about the proposal. A time and location have not been announced.

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.