Jan Brewer

Nov. 30, 2011 -- FILE: Gov. Jan Brewer speaks to business interests and legislators from around the state during a meeting in Phoenix.

By Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services

Saying no private firm could operate like this, Gov. Jan Brewer said Wednesday she wants to revamp state personnel rules to make it easier to fire employees.

The governor said it is now "extremely difficult" to get rid of a worker who is not properly performing. And she said all the hurdles in the current system for terminating or disciplining workers "discourages supervisors from managing employees."

"Our current system would not be tolerated by any business in this country," Brewer told the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group of business interests and legislative allies who are having a policy conference here.

But the governor, in explaining her position after the speech, said workers who do their jobs well should not fear an overhaul of state personnel practices.

"I think that it's much better if we have an employment process and policies that works more like the private sector so that you get rewarded if you're a good worker," Brewer said.

"The way that it is today, you don't get rewarded,'' she continued. "There's no incentive.''

Sheri Van Horsen, president of Local 3111 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, acknowledged that workers are put into job classifications, each of which comes with its own pay-grade range. But she said there already are procedures for supervisors to seek what amount to exception for exemplary workers - with approval of the state Department of Administration.

What Van Horsen fears is a system where promotions and raises are left totally to the discretion of bosses. She said that allows someone who may not even be qualified for a certain job to be put into that position and given a raise, over the pay of existing workers, "because the supervisor likes Sally more than she likes Joe."

And Van Horsen said Arizonans do not need to look far to find examples of that among state workers who already are outside the merit system. She cited the move of Don Cardon from director of what had been the state Department of Commerce to his new position heading what is now the public-private Arizona Commerce Authority.

"His salary tripled, he got a car bonus, he got a sign-on bonus," she said, saying Cardon essentially is doing the same job now he was doing before. "The reason why Republicans, more than 40 years ago, got rid of the spoils system in favor of the merit system is they were sick and tired of the corruption and cronyism in government."

Brewer has defended both the hiring of Cardon for the new spot and his salary, saying his job really is different. And gubernatorial press aide Matthew Benson said the fears of creating a personnel system in Arizona based on favoritism are unwarranted.

"We've already got agencies 100 percent uncovered'' by personnel system rules, Benson said, specifically mentioning the state Department of Gaming and the Office of Tourism. He said there have been no problems with new directors coming in, firing workers from a prior administration, and replacing them all with political allies.

Anyway, Benson said, voters need to have some faith that those at the top, including his boss, will not tolerate cronyism simply because it isn't good politics.

"A competent, professional staff has to remain the priority of state government," he said.

"Any governor who amasses a staff that doesn't meet that standard is going to be held accountable by voters," Benson continued. "That is the biggest check and balance in the system."

That leaves the other side of Brewer's proposal: easing the process of ousting workers.

Some Republican lawmakers have advocated a broad overhaul, making all state workers "at-will" employees, meaning they could be fired for any reason at all, with no recourse.

Benson said Brewer is not interested in going that far.

Instead, she wants to scrap civil service protections only from supervisors and employees who get promotions. But anyone hired after the law is changed also would be an "at-will" employee.

Van Horsen said supervisors who want to fire underperforming or incompetent workers can do that now. But she said they do have to follow procedures.

That includes a verbal warning, followed up by a written warning if the employee's performance fails to improve. After that, Van Horsen said, there is no barrier to a worker being suspended or fired.

"It doesn't take long," Van Horsen said. Nor does the process give undo protections to those who have been ousted for legitimate reasons.

"We tell those people, ‘Look: They gave you every single opportunity. You don't value your job,'" she said.

But Van Horsen said the current rules give her union the opportunity to protect workers who are victims of "gross abuses" where people are fired, "maybe for political reasons, maybe because the supervisor didn't like the employee."

In those situations, she said, the union is able to go through the worker's employment records to determine if the firing was proper, looking at everything from whether the person was given specific warnings of improper conduct to whether there had been complaints by customers.

"And we have found in many circumstances this person didn't do anything to be fired," Van Horsen said.

There is one area where Brewer and Van Horsen agree: Too many agencies operate their own separate personnel and merit systems. Van Horsen said that means too many different grievance processes for her union, in representing state workers, to navigate.

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