Tuesday, October 6, 2015


By Dominique Paul Noth

There has seldom been as misleadingly backwards a headline as Journal Sentinel’s Page One Oct. 6 about the legislative effort to gut the state’s successful civil service system – Civil Service Overhaul Has Momentum Going Into First Hearing.  Momentum? The majority of the story quoted experts contrasting the close-minded right-wing rush for approval with the reality that the overhaul is unsavory, unnecessary and politically motivated.   

Steve Nass and Scott Walker, twin faces of a new failure
“Momentum” could only have been used to mean that, despite the facts, the bill is likely to fly through the Wisconsin Assembly and Senate, which has spent five years demonstrating the GOP majority is replete with ignoramuses.

Their policies haven’t and can’t improve the hiring, fiscal or education records of the state, but they remain stubborn self-obsessed bill writers protecting their own political battiness for the remaining years the citizens allow them to stay in office.  (An Oct. 6 ploy in that vein led committee GOP chair Sen. Steve Nass to call a two-hour lunch break to disrupt convenient testimony times for state workers – never let the facts get in the way of the rush.)

The actual force inside that  JS story comes from a veteran of the civil service system who once only had those rules and his integrity to fight an effort by the Doyle administration (more precisely, cabinet secretary Frank Busalacchi) to sideline him -- Jim Thiel, a former management attorney within the state Department of Transportation who was able to win his position back thanks to civil service regulations that are about to vanish.

Argue all you want about Act 10 and how it made average citizens feel like big brave lumberjacks chopping down the health benefits and pensions earned by their servants, but then talk today to Republican-dominated school districts and municipalities crippled by Act 10 rules, losing or paying even more for good teachers, and longing for the old days of collective bargaining. 

Add in right to work rules – which the private sector is now realizing is indeed the right to work “for less” and could soon make “shoddy” the word attached to the Wisconsin label rather than the “Union Made” attached to Scott Walker’s Harley. When you put low wages ahead of quality, you don’t have to worry about China and India stealing the good jobs, you’re doing it to yourself.

Mix in efforts to prevent John Doe prosecutors from specifically investigating politicians and their money-raising tricks (a weird suggestion that bank robbers should be pursued more vigorously than public white collar fraudsters). Weigh this legislative-led systemic catering to business cronies, questionable use of taxpayer money at WEDC and violations of the common-sense rules of integrity required in the free market.

And now comes civil service, created in 1905, upgraded often since but hardly perfect (what system private or public is?).  But one thing it has done has been to block political nepotism and backroom corruption and elevate integrity in public service --  by requiring applicants for 30,000 jobs to generally be tested through exams on their knowledge and ability and to be subject to a series of rules about staying or rising in government employment.

(It should not escape notice that the revolving door shenanigans at WEDC -- the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation -- that made headlines about wasted money took place largely because Walker lifted the civil service standards for hiring when he created that agency.)

As antiquated as the legislators are trying to make the system sound, many retired civil service workers reminded me how often they were able to update the process,  make exams  more applicable to their modernizing  job descriptions, speak out for meaningful upgrades, willingly repeated four-hour tests and felt strongly engaged in public service because of the rules.

The farce of this new bill is that such protections will be eliminated amid claims they are kept! All this is, the sponsors say, a modern response to the time it takes to evaluate workers and a recognition that baby boomers are aging out of the jobs.  Neither the comfort of speed nor the disadvantage of aging would normally be a sufficient reason to gut a working system, but here come the smoke and mirrors.

Sen. Roth seems not to
understand his own bill.
“Nothing in my bill will lead us back to the days of political patronage," insists the lead sponsor of S285, Sen. Roger Roth (R-Appleton) – which either means he’s lying or can’t read his own proposal. 

First and most obvious, it eliminates the civil service exams and replaces them with a resume-based hiring and merit process. That brings hoots of laughter from every respected institution of academic learning that knows what a variety of individuals live behind each degree they give out, and larger hoots from practiced managers in public and private business who know how inventive resume writing has become in the Internet age.

That includes me, who has mastered multiple Word templates on resume presentation and helped hundreds work on them. While known as a professional journalist and reviewer, I have actually managed several large staffs,  taught at  two universities, run national seminars and been pestered for resume help by a large family and even larger circle of their graduating friends.  

I regard myself as painfully honest, but I also fudge.  A good actor may have done an exceptional Puck from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in a university class, so I might suggest beefing up a thin resume with “Puck . . .  Shakespeare . . .  Milwaukee.”  A fine writer who was a struggling stringer at the Appleton Post-Crescent or St. Louis Post Dispatch might find “Reporter . . .  Appleton Post-Crescent” approved by my signature. I know college chemistry and engineering teachers who have played the same sense of favoritism for proven value toward responsible students asking for job recommendations.

But in truth, as a manager, I knew a high-sounding resume  -- chockful of degrees and important names --  is at best only the basis for an interview, not a hiring. What idiot would base government hiring on that?  Oh, this idiot state. 

Actual exams, hard tests and so forth will always prove the more winning way to demonstrate ability and integrity.  But Wisconsin legislators can’t abide such independence and want to eliminate it.  As Scott Ross of One Wisconsin Now has commented, “A very clear message is being sent to state employees: Put the political considerations of this administration before the needs of the taxpayers of the state of Wisconsin."

Scott Ross reveals real warning within legislation.
And if the state employees don’t get that message, the legislature is doubling down with new absolutist firing provisions of “just cause”  along with the elimination of “bumping rights” or seniority of experience in changing jobs within the system.

Now, private or public sector, every capable manager has had a good worker who because of privacy concerns or family problems might miss a few days of work and still be worth a second chance. You, dear reader, may be one of those.  Or the guy who was still drunk a day after the Brewers game and when properly chastised is worth keeping.  But not if you have a bootlicker manager hurrying to fawn over “just cause” for his politically motivated boss.

Many municipal managers confessed in interviews recently they regret that Act 10 cost them good union stewards who were their best line of defense on record keeping and helping them turn around (or get rid of) lax employees. As one public official told me, “These stewards fought to get those rights and they are damned if they’ll let any bad employee abuse them – but they also knew how to respond to a human situation.”

But now, in the interest of standing firm for arbitrary personal favorites, not public best, the legislators would make the standards for job loss legally aloof, unbending and automatic, allowing – and actually encouraging -- managers to pluck out those absentees, free thinkers or individuals they ideologically dislike.  It is the ultimate in putting nepotism, cronyism, corruption and political favoritism ahead of integrity and individuality.

The bill uses more smoke and mirrors to disguise this – a two year probationary period for hires rather than six months, which allows smart incompetents to linger, I guess, or gives managers longer to uncover a worker from the opposite political side to find an excuse to fire.  Then there is the “ban the box” idea, popular in progressive legislation so that previous prison convictions that have nothing to do with the job don’t have to be included. But that’s a tiny bone that would have some meat if it also required an exam not a resume.

Walker’s campaign for president flopped in large part because the public in other states picked up and flatly rejected the poseur image he is still hung up on, especially his lording it over union workers. He and Chris Christie failed to make a dent in the polls with that. So now he’s back sticking his nose in state bills and letting  if not leading the next step in abusing worker rights,  this civil service nonsense – silly as it looks.

That just confirms Wisconsin as the nation’s lonely Freedonia among 50 states.  And will remain so until we stop playing Margaret Dumont to the Marx Brothers. 

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com. 


  1. Walker's budget calls for state agencies to lapse [return] $2.16 billion from their operating budgets over the next 3 years. Without this money coming back to the General Fund his budget has a huge hole. What better way for Walker to get this money from state agencies than to purge these agencies of their higher paid staff by using a reformed civil service system that takes away employee job protections and allows for managers to fire based on a suddenly unsatisfactory performance evaluation. Employees get to appeal their dismissal to an agency headed by a Walker appointee...........anyone think an employee will win an appeal? I'm afraid this civil service change was another well laid but hidden plan by Walker to cut government staff to balance his "no tax increase" budget.

  2. Well, I sympathize with and am amused by your reasoning, since reducing the payroll will be the slow but steady result of this action, though first bringing loss of services and efficiency. But from a money point of view, it will be two governors after Walker before these changes would come close to balancing the funding lapse :-)

  3. I don't think "ban the box" is a bone. Rather it is an acknowledgement that many of the folks they want to put in place through cronyism and nepotism have records.