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Legislators, Stitt seek civil service changes for state employees

The Oklahoma state Capitol is shown. [The Oklahoman Archives]
The Oklahoma state Capitol is shown. [The Oklahoman Archives]

Gov. Kevin Stitt and some state legislators are looking to overhaul Oklahoma’s civil service system.

For years, legislators and the Oklahoma Public Employees Association have pushed modernizing the state's merit protection system, but couldn't gain traction on the issue.

It just wasn’t a priority of the Fallin administration, said Rep. Mike Osburn, R-Edmond. Osburn, who served on the state’s Merit Protection Commission under Gov. Frank Keating, has been looking to update the system since he first took office in 2017.

Stitt, however, appears eager to tackle merit protection reform.

The merit protection system dates to the 1950s and hasn’t been updated since 1982. Osburn compared it to driving a nearly 40-year-old Chrysler LeBaron that has never received regular maintenance or repairs.

The system affords “classified” state workers various protections that can make it difficult to be fired or even disciplined. Similarly, the system can make it difficult to reward hard-working employees with a pay raise or a promotion, Osburn said.

“My priority is to create a system that makes it easier for agency directors and agency heads to manage their human resources that does not require a mountain of red tape every time you need to do something, either positive or negative,” he said.

Roughly 65% of Oklahoma’s 33,000 state employees are classified. The others are "unclassified" employees, and have fewer job protections.

In his State of the State speech, Stitt called for all new state hires to be unclassified.

He also wants agency heads to be able to offer bonuses to employees who are willing to shed their classified status. Within five years, he wants a majority of state employees to be unclassified.

“The state’s current civil service program is broken,” he said. “High quality employees are forced into a system that doesn’t maximize their professional growth and potential. Agency leaders have their hands tied in who they can hire and promote due to outdated restrictions.”

No doubt the merit protection system is unusual for a man who spent the bulk of his career as a private sector businessman.

Stitt also wants to replace the state’s Merit Protection Commission with a three-person panel to maintain whistleblower protections and provide due process for all state employees, classified or unclassified, who have serious grievances.

The due process component is key to protecting state employees from political influence, said Sterling Zearley, executive director of the public employees association. Due process allows state employees to do their jobs without fear of being disciplined or fired or because they stepped on the toes of someone who has political influence in the course of doing their job.

But OPEA isn’t opposed to getting away from a system that differentiates employees between classified and unclassified, Zearley said.

“We’re willing to sit down and talk about having just one system with a due process component,” he said.

The Merit Protection Commission, a quasi-judicial agency that resolves disputes involving state employees, currently serves as the state’s due process system. The commission handles allegations of wrongful termination, sexual harassment, discrimination, whistleblower complaints and more.

A report commissioned by the State Chamber Research Foundation recently examined civil service systems in six other states to get an idea of best practices that could be implemented in Oklahoma.

The foundation supported last year’s push to give Oklahoma’s governor the power to appoint more state agency heads. With Stitt's proposed changes to the merit protection system, the governor is trying to build on the momentum he has to make government work more efficiently, said Jennifer Lepard, the foundation’s executive director.

“He was elected, I think, by the people to come in and make some sweeping changes,” she said. “He seems to have taken that to heart, and we want to be supportive.”

Carol Shelley, executive director of the Merit Protection Commission, said she’s not sure what specific changes Stitt and legislators want.

Osburn and Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat have filed merit protection reform bills, but they are still shell bills that lack details.

“The state of Oklahoma should be proud to have a system that provides fairness and dispute resolution for its employees,” Shelley said. “However, I know that the governor is interested in reforming the merit system. I’m not opposed to any reforms at all. The problem is I’m not sure what the proposals are.”

Osburn said he’s still working behind the scenes to bring the House, Senate, governor’s office and OPEA into agreement.

He said they’re getting closer to coming up with a system that everyone — state employees, managers, agency directors and elected officials — can all agree upon.

"This doesn’t need to be scary for people,” Osburn said. “This is just us moving forward into the next time frame. It’s not bad, it’s not good. It’s just different, and I hope state employees know the intention is not to punish or to make them more vulnerable."

Related Photos
<strong>Osburn</strong>

Osburn

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-5095d4919ba55ddf58ae45c4ea104305.jpg" alt="Photo - Osburn " title=" Osburn "><figcaption> Osburn </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-eb63fbb73061ed96edfaf96361bc0376.jpg" alt="Photo - Zearley " title=" Zearley "><figcaption> Zearley </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-4e7c6ffce41085951fd9c63106b7b679.jpg" alt="Photo - The Oklahoma state Capitol is shown. [The Oklahoman Archives] " title=" The Oklahoma state Capitol is shown. [The Oklahoman Archives] "><figcaption> The Oklahoma state Capitol is shown. [The Oklahoman Archives] </figcaption></figure>
Carmen Forman

Carmen Forman covers the state Capitol and governor's office for The Oklahoman. A Norman native and graduate of the University of Oklahoma, she previously covered state politics in Virginia and Arizona before returning to Oklahoma. Read more ›

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