TAMPA — An employee with Hillsborough County’s Civil Service Board was forced to apologize last week for a statement she made recently before a legislative committee, implying that the county Sheriff’s Office opposed affirmative action in hiring minorities.
Alma Gonzalez, the Civil Service Board’s chief of employee relations, was testifying in opposition to a local bill that would largely dismantle her agency if it passes. The bill is backed by a number of county officials who say Civil Service rules hamper their ability to hire, transfer and promote employees as needed.
Officials who support the bill include the County Commission, Tax Collector Doug Belden and Circuit Court Clerk Pat Frank. Yet Gonzalez told the legislative committee on March 12 that the agencies served by Civil Service were “thrilled with the work we do for them.”
“The only thing we’ve been told was by the sheriff’s office, who said they are not sure they want to do affirmative action the way it’s currently being done in Hillsborough County,” Gonzalez said.
The next day, Gonzalez got a phone call from Sheriff’s Col. Jim Previtera protesting her statement. Previtera could not be reached Friday, but his boss, Chief Deputy Joe Docobo, said the sheriff has been “a major player” in the county’s affirmative action efforts.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Docobo said of Gonzalez’ statement to the committee. “We’ve been extremely involved in the county’s Affirmative Action Council. Whether it was intentional or out of ignorance, she simply grossly misspoke.”
On March 17, Gonzalez wrote a two-page letter of apology to Previtera. Much of the letter was a tutorial on the county’s affirmative action plan and committee. In the last paragraph, Gonzalez apologized for the “misunderstanding.”
“I am aware that the Sheriff’s Office remains committed to the Affirmative Action-related provision of the Civil Service Act,” Gonzalez wrote.
Civil Service Director Dane Petersen followed up Thursday with a press release entitled “correction of the public record” to reiterate that Gonzalez’ statement was inaccurate.
The flap over Gonzalez’ testimony was the latest development in an acrimonious dispute over the future of the Civil Service Board. Created by legislative act in the 1950s, the board was considered a good-government reform that would prevent politically motivated hiring and firing of public employees and ensure a professional government workforce.
But the leaders of some county agencies have grown increasingly frustrated by the many Civil Service job classifications and other regulations. Critics say the Civil Service rules are outdated and limit an agency’s flexibility in attracting and keeping good employees.
Belden said he will save money if the bill passes by “not having to spend the unnecessary time I’ve spent on their ludicrous regulations and bureaucratic processes you have to go through.”
Last year, Belden met with Frank, the Circuit Court clerk, and County Administrator Mike Merrill to discuss transforming Civil Service. Frank said she decided Civil Service needed reforming after the agency delayed her plans to give employees raises.
“One complication I encountered before I was able to announce the raises was that I was not a free agent _ even though I am an independently elected constitutional officer,” Frank wrote in a Sept. 30 letter to her employees. “Under the Civil Service system, I am required to follow certain procedures in areas including compensation.”
The three officials say they don’t want to abolish Civil Service. Under the bill now likely to pass the Legislature, employees would still be entitled to hearings if they feel they were disciplined, demoted or fired unfairly.
The bill would allow the 21 county agencies now under Civil Service to opt out of services the board provides, such as recruitment, testing and training of potential employees.
Petersen was not invited to the discussions about reorganization of his agency. Once he heard about the meetings, he tried to share information with county commissioners about the benefits he says Civil Service provides, such as centralized human resource services and the agency’s oversight of county hiring decisions.
“It’s really just a question of whether it’s a centralized, shared, cost-effective approach to human resources, which is what we provide, versus what you have if the county administrator does individually what we do, the sheriff does it individually, the tax collector does it individually,” Petersen said.
But e-mails show the commissioners were all on board with the opt-out plan before they voted 7-0 on Oct. 2 to support the plan. And in December, the 14-member county legislative delegation approved the local bill with just two dissenting votes.
Since then, Petersen has continued to lobby legislators and anyone else who will listen on behalf of an agency he says has served the county well for 60 years or more.
His efforts have antagonized Belden, who accused Petersen of “stirring up minorities” by contacting the NAACP and black legislators.
“He’s creating divisiveness in the community,” Belden said.
Petersen denied the charge, saying NAACP was one of many organizations he’s contacted to share information about Civil Service. He painted the dispute as one between county officials, who have political influence, and county employees who have none. He noted that the Civil Services’ Employee Advisory Committee, made up of 30 classified employees from different agencies, voted overwhelmingly to oppose the bill.
“Employees and citizens, they’re not legislatively savvy and agile so they’re not traveling to Tallahassee like elected officials to explain that they’re opposed to (the bill),” Petersen said. “Mr. Belden does not appreciate that. He thinks I should sit on the sidelines and do whatever he says is right for my organization.”