Wednesday, July 26, 2006

No merit in this system

It's been common knowledge in Kentucky for a long time that the merit system is broken and needs fixing.

Democrats have violated the laws and abused the system for decades. How else does one explain the disparity in ratios between voter registration and political affiliation of state employees, especially in Republican counties?

A commission established by former Gov. Brereton Jones recommended overhauling the merit system. So, too, did the blue ribbon commission formed by Gov. Ernie Fletcher. The fact that an attorney general who himself has violated merit system laws (by trying to use his political clout when he was in the House of Representatives to get his recommended job candidates hired) is now prosecuting a sitting governor on an overreaching indictment just cements the thought that repairs are needed in Kentucky's civil service procedures.

And, as if more evidence was needed, came the revelations last week of personnel problems regarding recurring abuse of residents at the Oakwood home for the mentally handicapped in Somerset.

If Oakwood was a private establishment, those people singled out in the Herald-Leader story would have been fired months ago.

But for better or worse -- often worse -- the state makes it nearly impossible to get rid of an employee for a bad act. The state's Personnel Board, which hears appeals of dismissals and demotions, has a terrible track record of overturning perfectly logical employee termination decisions and instead substituting five-day suspensions in lieu of firing.

The most egregious case was probably that of Richard Vissing. Vissing was a Transportation Cabinet employee who, during the Patton administration, got caught masturbating while driving along I-65 in a state vehicle. The media coverage brought Kentucky another round of national embarrassment. The Transportation Cabinet fired him, a state hearing officer upheld the dismissal, but the Personnel Board rejected that recommendation.

This case outraged the newly elected Fletcher administration. It, in large part, motivated the governor to select members to the Personnel Board who would uphold standards and expect exemplary conduct from state employees while on duty.

With a few exceptions, most in the state are in agreement that merit employees should be free of firing because of politics. But are those safeguards too onerous when it comes to job actions for performance reasons? Should the state have more leeway in firing employees for cause?

The bet here is that those poor abused patients at Oakwood, and their familes who entrusted the state with their care, wish that such was the case.

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