Editorial: California Senate’s hiring practices are a little too clubby

This editorial was originally published Thursday, July 3, 2014

The California Senate is an exclusive place, but it’s not a club. Unfortunately, too many hiring decisions suggest that insiders think it is their private domain.

In a report on Sunday, The Sacramento Bee’s Laurel Rosenhall found instances of nepotism and cronyism, including hiring of friends and family of Dina Hidalgo, head of human resources for the Senate, and her supervisor, Greg Schmidt, the top Senate administrator.

Other branches of government are subject to the civil service system, which requires that everyone should have equal access to taxpayer-funded jobs. Legislative jobs are rarely advertised.

Hildalgo apparently helped find taxpayer-funded jobs for buddies from her softball team. That is tone deaf at best, and an abuse of the public trust at worst.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, has hired an outside firm to review nepotism allegations. The Senate should release the contract commissioning that investigation, something it has not done, and it should make the report public when it is completed.

Responsibility for oversight ultimately rests with the legislative leadership, which includes Steinberg and his predecessors as president pro tem. Incoming President Pro Tem Kevin de León should take heed and not let similar missteps take place on his watch.

Legislators have the power to run their affairs as they see fit, within reason. That makes sense. The Legislature is, after all, one of three independent branches of government. Legislators often hire people who worked on their campaigns. That’s part of politics.

And as we have written before, professional legislative committee staff members spend years focused on specific areas of the law. They analyze and help write legislation, and set the California Legislature apart from those in most other states.

Connections help some of them get in the door for job interviews. But for the most part, they get and keep their positions because they are skilled, talented and willing to work long hours.

Many of the jobs that are the focus of Rosenhall’s reporting are in security, facilities and other duties removed from the direct supervision of politicians. The positions might not to be particularly glamorous. But they come with sweet taxpayer-funded benefits and pensions not found in private enterprise.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature, which professes to care deeply about the long-term unemployed, veterans and other people in need of a break, should insist that such jobs be widely advertised and open to the general public.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with hiring someone who knows someone. People who have devoted some or all of their careers to government should encourage other people with ability to seek to join state service, including their relatives. Public service is a noble calling.

It’s one thing if someone who runs a business hires a relative, or a softball teammate. But these are tax-funded jobs. At a minimum, anyone who is qualified should get a competitive shot at the positions.