Hutto civil service will go to vote

Residents to decide whether to enact job protections for police

Hutto residents can vote May 10 on a measure that would change the hiring, promotion and disciplinary rules of the city's police force.

A petition started by the Hutto Police Officer Association in January has garnered more than 100 signatures, enough to put a civil service proposition on the May 10 ballot.

As defined by Texas' Local Government Code, the purpose of civil service status is to "secure efficient fire and police departments composed of capable personnel who are free from political influence and who have permanent employment tenure as public servants." The system also sets written standards for hiring, promotions and disciplinary actions.

Brian Grubbs, who has worked for the Hutto Police Department for eight years, said the push to implement civil service status is an effort to increase professionalism, attract better candidates to the force and retain officers.

"The No. 1 one thing civil service [status] offers is job protection," Grubbs said, adding that he is advocating for civil service status as HPOA president, not as a city officer.

Enacting the system

If approved, Hutto will join the ranks of more than 80 Texas cities, including Cedar Park, Georgetown, New Braunfels, San Marcos and Taylor, that have approved civil service status. One of the first steps will be to create a civil service commission—a three-person board appointed by the city manager—and appoint a civil service director.

Commissioners' duties include overseeing disciplinary and promotion appeals and approving examinations and qualifications for promotions and hiring.

"They're responsible for taking the minimum requirements from the state and adding any rules to fit the local area," said Dick Brock, Texas Municipal Police Association field representative.

Shifting rules

Brock also contends that few changes would be made to officer hiring if civil service status was implemented. Hutto's current police officer hiring process requires written, physical agility, drug and polygraph tests; an oral exam in front of a board of officers; a physical; a background check; and a final interview. The command staff then decides which applicants to hire from those who have passed the standards.

If implemented, civil service status would require applicants to be ranked by their exam scores, and those with higher scores would be considered above others for hire. After being hired, a new officer is under a one-year probationary period during which time he or she may be fired for any reason.

Civil service status also governs disciplinary action within a police department. Under the system, an officer may be disciplined for a number of causes, including committing a felony, being intoxicated on the job or disrespecting a civilian or fellow staff member. If disciplinary action is taken against an officer, the officer can appeal the action through arbitration or with the civil service commission.

"[Civil service status] gives a due process if a police officer is ever to be disciplined, terminated, suspended or anything like that," Grubbs said. "Under our current system, only the city manager has the authority to terminate or suspend somebody. There is no guarantee of due process or a fair system, or for the officer to have the right to defend themselves."

Officer promotions are also outlined in the civil service code. Candidates must have at least two years of experience in a position just below the one for which they are applying and take an exam set by the commission. The police chief then examines the top three scorers and decides who to promote. The chief may choose not to promote the top two scorers for a valid reason, such as previous disciplinary action, but must promote one of the three.

"You want to have a system in place where there is a set of standards on how you get promoted and hired," Brock said. "You want a system that allows the best to move up."

Other areas governed by civil service status include establishing the same pay grade for all officers of the same rank and allowing officers to accumulate an unlimited amount of sick leave. If an officer leaves the department with unused sick leave, the city must pay the officer for up to 720 hours of the remaining time.

Concerns

Hutto City Council heard a presentation on civil service during its Feb. 6 meeting and work session. Council members expressed concern the system would cause problems with the police department's disciplinary procedures.

"We could have an officer score well on the commission's test, but treat residents badly," Hutto Mayor Pro Tem Ronnie Quintanilla-Perez said. "The commission could discipline an employee, but then the employee could appeal. It would be a long cycle."

Proponents of civil service status say the system would allow the police department to discipline unethical behavior while retaining good officers and attracting a wider pool of applicants.

"We don't want bad officers promoted," Grubbs said. "We have pride in our department, and we want to have the best officers to represent us."

Mayor Debbie Holland voiced misgivings because the measure would not allow the city to implement a proposed merit-pay program previously discussed by the council.

"Why [does the HPOA] think this is necessary?" she said. "[Merit pay] would put [police] into a more equitable level with surrounding police departments."

Funding civil service, including providing the administrative support the system requires, is also an issue concerning the council, though the city does not have specific numbers on how much the new policy could cost.

"It will cost the city more money," Holland said. "The [director] of the civil service commission is paid, so we will have a paid director and a police chief. We'll also have to provide the director with office space and staff."

Brock, however, said any funding would be minimal, particularly because the civil service director's duties are typically given to a city's human resources director.

"No other cities that have civil service [status] have ever been able to document a large increase to justify this argument," he said.

The Leander Professional Firefighters Association spearheaded an effort last year to implement civil service for the city's fire department, but voters struck down the measure. Leander City Manager Kent Cagle said voters were concerned about funding and implementing the new policy.

"It's just lots of bureaucracy and additional costs for no improvement in service," Cagle said.

In contrast, the city of San Marcos has operated under civil service status for 40 years, and Linda Spacek, the city's human resources and civil service director, said San Marcos police and fire departments have been successful under the policy.

"Had [civil service status] not been successful, we would have [chosen to make] some changes," Spacek said.

Grubbs said the HPOA plans to hold public forums to provide the public with more information during the time leading up to the election.

By Korri Kezar
Korri Kezar graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2011 with a degree in journalism. She worked for Community Impact Newspaper's Round Rock-Pflugerville-Hutto edition for two years before moving to Dallas. Five years later, she returned to the company to launch Community Impact Newspaper's Keller-Roanoke-Northeast Fort Worth edition, where she covers local government, development, transportation and a variety of other topics. She has also worked at the San Antonio Express-News, Austin-American Statesman and Dallas Business Journal.


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