Flint Water Crisis Triggers Constitutional Amendment Proposal
House Speaker wants to make it easier to fire incompetent government employees
The investigation into how the City of Flint’s drinking water became contaminated almost immediately became highly politicized and partisan, but this much seems clear: The crisis involved government failures at the local, state and federal levels. The failure was aggravated by overlapping layers of opaque and possibly contradictory regulations promulgated by multiple agencies, which all conspired to dilute responsibility and accountability.
Nevertheless, the actions – or perhaps inaction - of two long-time civil service employees at the Michigan Department of Environmental quality, have drawn criticism from all quarters, and criminal charges.
In Michigan and most states, government employees are subject to civil service protections originally created during the Progressive era in the early 20th century in an effort to reduce corruption and political patronage that was most visible in big city “machine” politics but was rife throughout government. One unfortunate downside is that the laws make it difficult or even impossible in some cases to fire “civil servants” for anything but the most egregious kinds of malfeasance.
In Michigan, these protections are built into the state constitution in the form of a Civil Service Commission that in the matter of state employees can even trump the action of the legislature in some areas.
This is the context for a new proposal to amend the state constitution introduced Thursday by the Speaker of the Michigan House, Kevin Cotter (R-Mount Pleasant), as House Joint Resolution MM. The measure would give state department heads the power to fire civil servants for “conduct that directly and negatively impacts the department's ability to accomplish its statutory duties in a fair, timely,
equitable, and transparent manner.” Employees would retain the right to appeal to the Civil Service Commission, and get their jobs back if it judged the firing “arbitrary and capricious.”
Given the politicization of the Flint water debacle the fate of the measure is uncertain. It would require a two-third supermajority vote in both the House and Senate to be placed on the ballot, and then the approval of voters. Cotter is widely regarded as an effective and able Speaker, however, so it would be premature to count the proposal out yet.