It routinely takes up to seven months or more for Long Beach to fill a vacant position, and the mayor and city manager now want voters to help them speed up that process.
If the City Council approves their plan, Long Beach will author a ballot measure for the November election that would centralize hiring in the city’s human resources department and take those responsibilities away from the Civil Service Department, which, for decades, has sought to protect against a spoils system where city hirings could be subject to political favoritism or nepotism.
Because the Civil Service Department’s role is outlined in the city charter, voters would have to approve the change, which would allow the Civil Service Commission to continue hearing appeals about employee discipline and hiring discrimination but strip the department of its hiring functions.
City Manager Tom Modica said the changes would speed up the hiring process and ease a crisis that has left 20% of positions unfilled.
“Our employees are feeling it,” Modica said. “They’re really trying to do the work while they have empty positions next to them for a year or more sometimes.”
Mayor Rex Richardson has backed the change, advocating for it in his January State of the City address where he said local hiring and a more nimble approach could make working for the city “sexy again.”
But the proposal is already stoking controversy among employee associations and the Civil Service Department itself. They argue the current process is an important safeguard to keep the city’s hiring process fair, and Civil Service is not the sluggish culprit the mayor and city manager have made it out to be.
“Civil Service needs to have the autonomy to ensure that the merit system continues and we don’t go back to cronyism or nepotism,” Civil Service Executive Director Christina Pizzaro Winting said. “We play a critical role. We are also very cognizant of timing.”
What is Civil Service?
Long Beach has a two-pronged hiring system where human resources hires “non-classified” employees — mostly management and appointed positions and part-timers — while Civil Service hires “classified” employees like civil engineers, building inspectors, police officers, firefighters and others who make up the bulk of the city’s workforce.
City departments with open positions must ask Civil Service to create a job posting and start recruiting. Once it has applicants, Civil Service tests them and compiles a list of qualified candidates who are then sent to the departments for interviews. After that step, candidates can be offered jobs and move on to the onboarding process, which is handled by human resources.
Who’s running. What’s at stake.
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The Civil Service Commission, which is made up of five commissioners appointed by the mayor and City Council, oversees this process by voting to approve things like job postings and candidate rankings based on test results at public meetings.
Modica, the city manager, says this process has contributed to Long Beach’s sluggish hiring, which takes about 42% longer than other cities the size of Long Beach. On average, hiring takes 213 days, according to Modica, who said some cases can take a year, “sometimes two.”
The city’s goal is to get the hiring process down to 90 business days, but who’s to blame for the current delays depends on whom you ask.
One holdup, Modica said, is the need for Civil Service to create lists of who is eligible to be hired based on the results of the tests they administer. There are multiple city jobs that haven’t had eligibility lists created in years; one for a job reviewing building plans has not had a new list since 2018, Modica said.
Pizzaro Winting said Civil Service moves swiftly to create eligibility lists and the majority of hiring delays rest with individual departments.
“We do everything that we can to get things to them quickly, but then it’s out of our hands,” Pizzaro Winting said. After that, she said, “it’s up to the department” to interview people and offer them jobs.
At a recent meeting, Civil Service Commissioner Robyn Gordon-Peterson accused other city departments of letting eligibility lists languish without anyone being hired. Now, she said, Civil Service is being unfairly scapegoated as the problem.
“In the absence of truth, a false narrative has taken hold,” she said.
Another commissioner highlighted the problem by saying staff had created an eligibility list for an architect job at the Port of Long Beach in just over 20 days, but that did nothing to speed up the process.
Instead, the position has sat unfilled since 2022, and port officials opted to hire a consultant rather than offer the job to what they called underqualified applicants.
“This outrages me as a taxpayer,” said Civil Service Commissioner Jose Osuna, arguing that hiring one of the Civil Service–approved candidates likely would have been cheaper than bringing in the consultant.
‘The People’s Commission’
This isn’t the first time the city has tried to overhaul the Civil Service department, and just like this year, that attempt was met with resistance.
In 2010, the city sought to merge the Civil Service and Human Resources departments through a ballot initiative called Measure GG, but voters shot it down over worries about job losses and a perception that employees would lose employment protections.
“The consequence of Measure GG would be City Manager control over all City hiring practices,” opponents of the measure, which included former City Councilmember Doris Topsy-Elvord, wrote at the time. “The City of Bell controversy illustrates what happens when city governments have unchecked power.”
As city officials have begun presenting their plans for this year’s ballot measure, similar concerns are cropping up.
The city’s largest employee union, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, has already voiced skepticism.
The current Civil Service process lets applicants challenge questions being asked during exams or call out other parts of the process they think are unfair, said Ashley Gunckel, a business representative with the union.
In a memo outlining its proposal, the city says that it would continue merit-based hiring and allow applicants to use the Civil Service Commission to hear appeals of potentially unfair testing practices.
Gunckel also blamed departments outside Civil Service for causing delays by leaving candidate lists unused for long periods if they don’t include applicants whom managers and Human Resources like.
She worried this issue could get worse if hiring is shifted to Human Resources, which would have more autonomy and could potentially let more bias into the process.
Instead of scrapping Civil Service hiring, Gunkel suggested speeding it up by giving the department more employees to process applicants.
“It doesn’t make sense to me that we’re going to blow it all up when we just need more staff,” Gunkel said.
Civil Service Commission Chair Erik Frost Hollins also raised concerns last month about more bias creeping into hiring if his department is cut back.
Frost Hollins used a personal example, saying he is facing harassment at his job because he’s queer. He said the Civil Service, which he called “the people’s commission,” exists to prevent this kind of retaliation and favoritism by being a check against unfair promotions, hirings and discipline.
“Managers don’t like that we require the best-qualified candidates to be interviewed first,” Frost Hollins said. “But you know what? Sometimes you need to make people do the right thing.”
San Diego vs. Long Beach
Only two cities in the state, Long Beach and San Diego, use two separate departments to handle their hiring process, and San Diego has had similar hiring struggles.
In 2022, San Diego also proposed changing its civil service process but ultimately abandoned the effort and discarded an idea for a ballot measure like the one proposed in Long Beach.
The decision came as its personnel and civil service departments agreed to implement recommendations from an audit the city completed in 2023. It laid out a series of changes to speed up hiring, which had been taking an average of 291 days.
The audit found one of the biggest delays was the fact that departments that wanted to hire staff waited up to 15 weeks before asking civil service to create job postings. Cutting that down to two weeks could result in a 33% reduction in hiring time, according to the audit.
Modica said Long Beach is working to fix a similar issue. Its departments take between one and three months before asking Civil Service to start looking for applicants. Modica said the city wants to get that down to between 6 and 13 days by removing bureaucratic steps like having the city manager’s office review most positions before opening them up to applicants.
The city has also sped up the backend of the hiring process by ending drug testing for some positions and doing away with physical exams unless they’re necessary.
Long Beach’s Civil Service Department is also working on its own audit, which is expected to be finished later this year. It could have more recommendations to speed up the process, but it likely won’t come out until after the City Council decides whether to put the charter amendment on the November ballot.
Pizzaro Winting, the Civil Service executive director, said the city knows her department is understaffed. She said she currently has eight people trying to process jobs for a city with about 6,000 positions and she plans to ask for five more regardless of the uncertainty facing the department.
This is on top of other budget cuts she said she’s fought to restore since taking the job in 2019. She said the department will keep doing its job, and she hopes it will convince people they’re not the cause of the city’s hiring problems.
“But we need to do a better job of telling our story because the story that is being told about us is not true,” she said.
Modica, however, said the Civil Service budget has actually increased over the last 10 years and its staff has grown by 50%. Nevertheless, he said, ” the same issues persist.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show the city has already sped up the backend of its hiring process, that San Diego and Long Beach are the only two cities who have two hiring departments and that the Civil Service Department budget has increased over the past 10 years.