On the surface, last week’s news that a state department had purposefully promoted an unqualified employee seems like small potatoes.
But peel back the skin, and the ruling against the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (cue the irony) marks a profound moment for state government.
In case you missed it, a panel charged with ensuring government employment is based on merit said that Fair Employment and Housing officials wrongly promoted the employee – twice. She eventually landed in a management job for which she had neither the experience nor the education. The day after the State Personnel Board published its decision, the employee was demoted to her former job.
The employee applied for the positions believing she was qualified, the board decided, and therefore doesn’t have to repay any salary earned from the promotions. But Fair Employment and Housing officials knew better, the board said, and it ordered a deeper investigation to find out who signed off on the promotions. It was the first time in anyone’s memory that the board had ruled a department had acted in bad faith.
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And the investigation isn’t stopping there. Auditors are heading back to Fair Employment and Housing, this time to check records all the way back to 2009, the five-year statute of limitations on punishing bad-faith hires and promotions.
The case signals how the State Personnel Board is evolving under a reorganization plan hatched by Gov. Jerry Brown a few years ago. It moved more state human resources tasks, such as running the state jobs website, to another department. The change was pitched as a way to eliminate a confusing web of responsibilities that had built up over decades, while allowing the board to focus on its constitutional mandate to safeguard the civil service system.
It formed an audit team to spot-check departments’ personnel policies and practices. First stop: Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Don’t be surprised if other cases surface in other departments as the team’s net widens.
A watchdog’s bite comes from offending, upsetting and making examples when necessary. But state government sometimes acts more like a small-town city council, a relatively small circle of insiders who have been around forever and all know each other. Relationships like that help when you need to know who to call. They can be a liability when you know who to call out.
There are ties between Fair Employment and Housing and the Personnel Board. Suzanne Ambrose, the board’s executive officer, used to run the department. The board’s chief of its Appeals Division, Paul Ramsey, was Fair Employment and Housing’s chief counsel from 2002 to 2007. Those kinds of connections can take the steam out of government enforcement and turn a public punishment into a private wrist slap.
That didn’t happen with this case. This watchdog could have teeth.