Even as Gov. Scott Walker last week signed the bill that trashed Wisconsin’s 110-year-old civil service system, state employees got a hint of what working under the new law might bring.

According to a story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a Department of Natural Resources employee was being considered for discipline by her superiors after she distributed public records to a group opposing the construction of a golf course on the shores of Lake Michigan. The project in question involves connections to major Republican donors.

According to emails obtained by the Journal Sentinel, the employee had not followed proper protocol in releasing the records. The paper recently reported that the DNR has a policy of screening open records requests that were politically sensitive – not illegal as such but which certainly sends a message to employees about expectations that could affect their job performance.

The new civil service law replaces the competitive examination-based hiring with a resume-based policy and more clearly defines what is considered just cause for firing – a definition designed to make it easier to get rid of nonperforming employees.

Critics of the new law say it will mark a return to political cronyism, which the prior law was created in 1905 to eliminate.

Rep. Peter Barca, the Assembly Democratic leader from Kenosha, said that “by dismantling our state’s civil service system, Governor Walker and legislative Republicans are kicking down the door for cronyism and corruption in Wisconsin.”

Gov. Robert M. La Follette, on June 17, 1905, signed the bill creating one of the first civil service laws in the country, preceded only by New York, Massachusetts and the federal government. In a history celebrating the centennial of that event in 2005, Gov. Jim Doyle said, “Wisconsin’s governors and legislators have maintained that early commitment to merit-based hiring of permanent employees. ... Today, Wisconsin ranks high among the states for its sound, effective, and responsive human resources management practices. “

According to the history of Wisconsin civil service written for the centennial, “As in the federal government, the initiation of a civil service system brought the end to party ‘machine’ governance in Wisconsin and marked a highpoint in the progressive reforms of the era.”

One could argue, as the Republicans have in passing the new law, that a 110-year-old law was susceptible to some “reform” given the changes in technology and business practices in the 21st Century. However, given Walker’s embrace of crony capitalism, demonstrated by the influence of political money in the failure of his Wisconsin Economic Development Commission and the boondoggle of the Milwaukee arena funding, now was a bad time to make changes.

Karen Timberlake, who was director of the Office of State Employment Relations in 2005, wrote that La Follette’s “essential philosophy” was that “all citizens should have an equal opportunity to serve the public and that they should be evaluated on the basis of their demonstrated ability to do the jobs they seek.”

She added, “Many states have departed from these core principles over the years in the name of making state government hiring more flexible and competitive. Wisconsin’s leaders, by contrast, have chosen to preserve the core principles of merit hiring and just cause removal while continually striving for the flexibility needed to attract and retain high quality employees. This wise stewardship is indeed worth celebrating.”

Susan Crawford, a Madison attorney who edited the civil service history, said in a telephone interview this week that it was unfortunate that the administration and legislators who voted for the change did not recognize that the civil service laws that have stood the test of time protected both the employees and the employer. “They shield the employer from accusations of favoritism and politicking.”

I’m betting that the new rules will lead to ever-more-timorous state bureaucrats looking over their shoulders, weighing their words and worrying about public records releases that might offend the political powers that be. Efficient government responsive to all the people will suffer amid accusations of favoritism and politicking.

Dave Skoloda is an award-winning journalist and former owner and editor of the Onalaska Community Life and Holmen Courier.

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Randy Erickson, formerly the editor of the Onalaska Holmen Courier-Life and Coulee News, covers arts and entertainment and county government for the La Crosse Tribune. Contact him at 608-791-8219 or randy.erickson@lee.net.

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