For years and years, well before the current administration, the City of Alexandria has been hamstrung by a slow, inefficient, and sometimes incompetent civil service division. This, of course, should not be confused with the civil service system itself, which provides proper checks against executive and legislative abuse, patronage, and politicization by ensuring protection for employees.
Under the civil service system, protection comes with an important stipulation: In order to be protected from politicization, you have to agree to not engage in it yourself. Classified employees are prohibited from campaigning, for example. And it makes sense: If you want to preserve the integrity of civil service, then you should ensure it doesn’t merely become its own unelected, unchecked, and, therefore, undemocratic political apparatus. It should, ideally, be a type of apolitical union.
But what happens when civil service becomes awash with politics?
Before even considering this, though, it’s important to also consider that the effective, efficient, and professional administration of civil service is critical to the effectiveness of City government. If you can’t hire meter readers because of a bloated bureaucracy that constantly and arbitrarily decides to rewrite its own rules, job descriptions, and qualifying tests, then utility bills may not arrive on schedule. I know someone who graduated magna cum laude with a bachelors in business who was denied by civil service for an entry-level secretarial position. Seriously. And I know there are plenty of other stories.
Recently, Alexandria Civil Service has been the subject of protracted litigation and legislation, but in covering the sensational aspects– the personalities and the politics, the media has failed to really address the fundamental, underlying problem: This is about the ability of city government to perform its most basic functions. It has nothing to do with the good men and women who are serving their community as classified employees; it’s about the performance of those responsible for administering and managing the civil service division– appointed, unelected officials and administrators. When they do not or cannot perform their jobs, everyone suffers as a result.
In Alexandria, the need to reform civil service is obvious and well-documented, and again, ultimately, this is about improving the efficiency and fairness of government. In today’s economy, no large employer, like the City of Alexandria, is in want of qualified employees, yet vacancies take an inordinate amount of time to be filled; tests are created in a seemingly arbitrary fashion; imminently qualified candidates are rejected as a result of myopic incompetence. This is a real and pressing problem. And it’s compounded by another problem.
Despite the clear and convincing case for reform, it’s become difficult, if not impossible, to effectuate meaningful change, because civil service in Alexandria has itself become politicized. It’s as if those responsible for its administration consider themselves to be the fourth branch of government– an unelected branch.
Some would argue that this is the case with nearly every single union in the country, that politicization is inevitable. And maybe this is true, but it doesn’t make it right. More importantly, in Alexandria, the problem has nothing to do with the “union;” it’s with the performance of a small handful of employees who maintain expansive and broad powers (the hiring of employees, for example) and who are also completely unaccountable to the citizens at-large.
In my opinion, the so-called controversy over the recent litigation and legislation all boils down to this (and it’s sad to say): Reform helps the Mayor. It doesn’t necessarily help the City Council, but it doesn’t hurt them either. After all, they can still appear on television twice a month in order to blame the Mayor for these problems; most citizens don’t understand the nuances, nor should they be expected to.
Currently, Alexandria’s Civil Service Division is led by someone without a college degree, even though the job description requires it, and this person has fought bitterly to retain the position, recently testifying to the State legislature in opposition to reform.
The Director of Civil Service, Pam Saurage, in my opinion, could and should have resigned years ago. It would have been the dignified thing to do, particularly considering the performance of Civil Service administration and the need for reform, as was championed (at the time) by former City Council President Myron K. Lawson. But she didn’t; she sought to keep her job, and as I see it, she encouraged the politicization of her division. Mr. Lawson may now deny it, but I can clearly recall him recommending Ms. Saurage’s ouster. Indeed, without a doubt, current Council President Roosevelt Johnson also agreed.
Ms. Saurage and company retained Tommy Davenport as the Civil Service Commission’s attorney. It was, most assuredly, a political maneuver.
Mr. Davenport had just recently represented Jonathan Goins, a current City Councilman and the defendant in a lawsuit about his residency qualifications, brought forth by his opponent in the race, former Councilman Charles F. Smith. Mr. Davenport was particularly critical of Michael Marcotte, a former colleague of mine who followed a court order to conduct a utility usage inspection of the home Mr. Goins claimed as his primary residence.
Truth be told: Mr. Goins did not and does not occupy that home. He used the address in order to qualify for office. He lived in an apartment at Magnolia Trace, on the other side of town and in a different district. It was open knowledge.
Put another way: Only a few months after Mr. Davenport’s representation of Mr. Goins and Mr. Goins’s subsequent election to the City Council, Mr. Davenport was hired as the attorney for the Alexandria Civil Service Commission, a body that was also tasked with ensuring the interests of its protected, classified employees, including Mr. Marcotte.
In the Goins case, Mr. Marcotte provided the court, at its request, with a factual report about the utility usage at the residence claimed by Mr. Goins on his qualifying form. It’s easy to understand why a candidate challenging another candidate’s residency would request utility usage, and it’s obvious why the court would allow discovery; it’s absolutely central to the allegation. It’s not easy, however, to understand why Mr. Marcotte was subjected to disciplinary hearings and forced to defend himself for responding to a judge’s request. Thankfully and righteously, Mr. Marcotte was ultimately victorious, but still, it’s ridiculous. When Mr. Davenport and others went after Mr. Marcotte, the question should have been: Are they representing the best interests of civil service employees, or are they representing a City Councilman? What was the aim?
The man followed a judge’s order. He provided honest and factual testimony. Sure, it wasn’t testimony that helped Jonathan Goins’s case, but ultimately, the judge didn’t really consider it. Why would the Civil Service Commission ever attempt to reprimand an employee for following a judge’s order?
There’s only one reason, and it’s obvious: This had nothing to do with Mr. Marcotte. This is because Alexandria has a Mayor who seeks civil service reform and a small, entrenched group of unelected officials and high-ranking, unaccountable bureaucrats who oppose reform. The Mayor had endorsed Charles Smith in that particular election, and Mr. Goins and his attorney Mr. Davenport were on the other (I might add, winning) side.
Even though Mr. Marcotte, at the time, was a classified employee, he was likely perceived by Mr. Goins and Mr. Davenport as friendly with the administration. And once they got positions of power and influence, they could stick it to Mr. Marcotte by asserting that responding to a judge’s order in a political case somehow violated the civil service prohibition on politicking. It was insane. An obvious attempt to reprimand a classified employee simply for providing the court, upon order, with embarrassing, factual information about the utility usage at a Councilman’s “residence,” and an obvious attempt to turn the Civil Service Commission into an overtly political body.
It’s a small town, I know, and the legal community is even smaller. But surely, the Civil Service Commission could have found a lawyer who hadn’t most recently represented a sitting City Councilman against a former City Councilman in a controversial and politicized lawsuit. Knowing the context, I’m absolutely convinced that the hiring of Tommy Davenport was a move based on politics and not qualifications or expertise in the subject matter.
It doesn’t matter where you fall or which candidates you support: Civil service is in dire need of reform, and this pre-dates Mayor Roy. Instead of being serious, civil service leadership has been playing politics. This should be readily obvious to anyone who reads the local news. One day, Councilman Roosevelt Johnson votes against a candidate for the Civil Service Commission, Tiffany Sanders, and a few weeks later, he violates procedural law (I could just say “law”) by attempting to change his vote in her favor. The facts hadn’t changed, but apparently, for Councilman Johnson, the politics had.
I, for one, am not convinced, in the slightest, by the smoke and mirrors. Roosevelt Johnson violated procedural law by reintroducing Tiffany Sanders’s candidacy. Alert, alert: The man attempted to bend the law to expediently serve his own political interests.
But remember: It doesn’t likely matter to Ms. Sanders, because she asserts that she was automatically appointed as a result of delayed action, which is more smoke and mirrors. Ms. Sanders’s nomination required a specific procedure; it had to be officially submitted into consideration for the City Council agenda by Civil Service.
This, of course, makes complete sense. Civil Service should be provided with the latitude to independently ensure compliance prior to officially submitting a nominee for confirmation or rejection by the City Council.
Ms. Sanders seems to be arguing an expansively undemocratic interpretation of procedure. She suggests that because her nomination was mistakenly faxed to the City Clerk’s Office, instead of being properly transmitted to Civil Service, the notice of her nomination was still effectual upon receipt of the City Clerk. You with me?
And then she suggests that when the City Council called a special meeting immediately before the expiration of the notification deadline to consider her nomination, they erred.
You see, she claims the Council had unwittingly affirmed her confirmation only a few days prior. They didn’t vote on it. It happened automatically. Ms. Sanders believed the Council’s clock began ticking the moment their clerk received a misaddressed fax. It’s a patently undemocratic defense, particularly when you’re seeking to become an appointed and unelected member of a public body. Why even compel Civil Service to accept the appointment of nominees if the legislative branch can just do it on its own? She sought her nomination to the Commission by arguing against both the inherent right of Civil Service to submit nominees to the City Council and the right of the City Council to affirm duly-appointed nominees. Got that?
Roosevelt Johnson was the swing vote in opposition, at the time.
Tommy Davenport, by the way, was friends with Ms. Sanders. She wanted to become a member of the Commission that employed him, and he wasn’t going to stand in her way. By now, this should be abundantly obvious. The first paragraph of Mr. Davenport’s most recent letter to The Town Talk makes you think he’s happy Tiffany Sanders won an appeal against the Alexandria Civil Service Commission; Mr. Davenport was the Commission’s attorney when the litigation was initiated. So much for the serious and zealous representation of your client, right?
Again, thankfully, the courts are now providing for a proper venue.
It’s all a little mind-numbing, but mainly, it’s discouraging.
Most folks who read the local blogosphere are also aware of Tommy Davenport’s involvement in another case, in which he is being accused of using pseudonymous Internet handles to write about his own pending litigation. If true, this could severely undermine Mr. Davenport’s credibility. He should insist on opening up the investigation; it’s definitely noteworthy that he’s attempted to argue his IP address is not discoverable. If he seeks to demonstrate that he’s NOT the guy writing under internet handles associated with him, then he should embrace the notion of full discovery. (You can’t claim attorney-client or work-product privileges on blog postings, dude). If Tommy Davenport is, in fact, the user known as TheClearTruth, which seems buttressed by reports that the Davenport firm bought thecleartruth.com, then he has some major explainin’ to do.
All of that said, in conclusion:
There are systemic problems with Alexandria’s Civil Service Department that can only be fixed through a change in leadership. Anyone who does their homework about Alexandria City government knows this, and most people who have applied for a civil service job with the City have likely experienced this. It’s an unspoken reality; it’s not something the City should ever or would ever want to call attention, but it’s an enormous deficiency.
And it’s become even more difficult to reform.
There are, in my opinion, two camps: A group of full-time administrators whose jobs are dependent on a democratic vote of the people and a group of unelected appointees and bureaucrats who are beholden to no one other than themselves. In a perfect world, the unelected appointees and bureaucrats understand their responsibility and don’t play politics; that is not happening in Alexandria. Again, the administrators of Alexandria civil service seem to fashion themselves as the fourth wing of government; they claim to represent all employees, but as most employees know, they really speak for a very small and insular group of people in entrenched, unelected leadership positions.
Finally, congratulations to Tommy Davenport. He made thousands of taxpayer dollars “representing” the Alexandria Civil Service Commission, yet another bullet on his resume, albeit a bullet with a gigantic asterisk.