Voters in Long Beach are likely to decide in November whether to radically change how the city hires classified workers — an issue that has stirred fears that favoritism and secrecy will cloud decisions over who is offered a job at City Hall.

The underlying problem officials say they want to fix is a hiring crisis that has led to nearly a quarter of city jobs going unfilled.

The city manager, the mayor and at least some members of the City Council say the city’s bifurcated and bureaucratic hiring system — established by charter more than 100 years ago — is inefficient and sluggish.

“I can’t imagine how much good talent we have lost,” Councilmember Suely Saro said Tuesday, May 7, during the City Council’s first official hearing on the topic.

“To say that we have an organizational crisis is an understatement,” Councilmember Cindy Allen said.

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Meanwhile, members of the city’s Civil Service Commission, which for now oversees hiring of about 60% of the workforce, say they are being unfairly blamed for a problem that is plaguing cities across the state, and that the proposed changes will result in less transparency and more cronyism.

Less than 12 hours after the City Council last week voted unanimously to move the issue forward for further discussion, members of the Civil Service Commission — who have held seven hearings on the topic to date and voted to oppose the changes — sat demoralized behind the same dais.

“We’re all friends of the mayor,” said Erik Frost Hollins, president of the commission. “We’ve all said to slow down on this, and apparently our friendship is not strong enough to convey that message. That’s disappointing.”

Given that unions representing workers recently signed initial agreements with the city over some of the proposed changes, commissioners took turns affirming they won’t continue fighting unless the public — and the unions and workers at City Hall — join them.

“At this point,” Vice President Robyn Gordon-Peterson said, “we will join you, but we’ve got to see that you’re there.”

What’s at stake 

The changes being proposed would strip the Civil Service Commission of its hiring duties, and shift those responsibilities to the Human Resources Department. The two departments currently work separately, with Civil Service handling classified job placements and HR handling unclassified positions, such as managers and seasonal workers.

City Manager Tom Modica said this separation has resulted in confusion and redundancy; the two departments have different websites and social media, and even separate tables at hiring fairs.

It takes more than a year to fill some positions, Mayor Rex Richardson said, including critical jobs in public safety and public works. This puts residents at risk, hurts businesses and impedes routine tasks like trash pickup.

Modica and Richardson have assured that “merit-based” hiring, meaning the most qualified candidates are selected for the job, will remain in place.

Classified staff who are disciplined would still be able to appeal to the commission, which would be renamed the Civil Service Employee Rights and Appeals Commission. The commission would also receive and hear complaints about the hiring process for classified workers.

The charter amendment would also give hiring advantages to applicants who live in Long Beach, attended a college within 10 miles of Long Beach, candidates who work for the city, and those who have completed internships with the city or internships that have been approved by the city.

Who’s to blame?  

Though the City Council unanimously voted to move the changes along for discussion, several members requested more data, and two voiced pointed criticism at the proposed changes.

In an emotional speech, Councilmember Roberto Uranga said his first job with the city was in the Civil Service Department — and that as a man of color, he remembers being passed over for promotions.

“There were no women or people of color being hired,” he said, demanding more assurances that the merit-based hiring system would remain.

And, echoing sentiments of the Civil Service Commission, Councilmember Al Austin said he wasn’t convinced these changes would solve anything.

“Many cities are dealing with this no matter what their organization looks like,” he said. “The hiring process is difficult all over.”

Long Beach and San Diego are the only two large cities in California with separate hiring processes for classified and non-classified workers. Yet a 2022 study released late last year by the UC Berkeley Labor Center showed vacancy rates as high as 30% in county and city departments across the state.

The report authors suggested solutions including raising pay for civil service jobs, improving recruitment and retention efforts and — in line with the ideas pitched by Modica and Richardson — eliminating confusing and cumbersome hiring systems.

What’s next? 

The City Council on May 7 voted to convene its Charter Amendment Committee, which will hold at least three hearings over the next several months: June 11, July 16 and Aug. 6.

The City Council would have to vote in favor of placing the item on the ballot no later than Aug. 6.

The changes would pass if a simple majority of voters cast ballots in favor during the election on Nov. 5.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that hiring advantages will be given to applicants who attended a college within 10 miles of Long Beach, candidates who work for the city, and those who have completed internships with the city or internships that have been approved by the city.

Melissa Evans is the Chief Executive Officer of the Long Beach Post and Long Beach Business Journal. Reach her at [email protected], @melissaevansLBP or 562-512-6354.