There ought to be a law. There is.

“The people are what matter to government, and a government should aim to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life.”

— Frances Perkins

 

New Year’s Day was not a happy one for three Knox transfer-station workers, the men who handle the town’s waste, seeing that residents get garbage and recycled goods where they should be. The three laborers lost their jobs without warning or explanation.

The town board was split on replacing the three veteran workers with three new ones. Supervisor Vasilios Lefkaditis and his GOP running mates voted for the new appointments, saying it was what the highway superintendent, Gary Salisbury, wanted. Salisbury, who is also the town’s Republican chairman, had recently had his duties expanded by the board to oversee the transfer station as well as the highway department.

The two Democratic councilmen voted against the new appointments.

One of the fired workers told our Hilltown reporter, H. Rose Schneider, that, during the time he worked for the town of Knox, he had never had a job evaluation, had never had any warning that he wasn’t doing a good job, and found out on New Year’s Day he’d be losing his job.

This is not a good way to run town government. When the town board made Salisbury in charge of the transfer-station, it also adopted new operating procedures. Workers need to be given a chance to adapt to new procedures and they need to be evaluated and given instruction to improve if, indeed, there are any problems.

We received letters from residents who said the fired workers did their jobs well, and the town hall last week was packed with citizens who were upset about the firings. “From years of observation and interaction, I know these men to be courteous, hardworking, and dependable,” wrote one resident. “All three did the job far better than anyone could expect,” wrote another resident, “with hours spent outside in all weather and low pay.”

Schneider discovered that the New York State Civil Service Law protects laborers who have been on the job for more than five years from being fired at-will. Two of the three men fired on New Year’s Day had worked at the Knox transfer station for more than five years.

A look back at the history of Civil Service is instructive.

“Some civil service reform will come by necessity after the wearisome years of wasted Presidents have paved the way for it,” wrote President James A. Garfield in his diary shortly before he was assassinated.

Garfield was no reformer. The spoils system ruled in late 19th-Century America. When a new president took office, thousands of government workers were turned out of their jobs. During Garfield’s short tenure as president, he spent most of his efforts appointing political supporters to fill those jobs.

He was shot on July 2, 1881 by a disappointed job seeker, Charles Guiteau. Garfield had refused to appoint Guiteau as the United States consul to Paris.

The country was shocked into action. Civil Service reform began in earnest.

On Jan. 16, 1883, Congress passed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, requiring applicants to take Civil Service exams in order to be given certain jobs. The federal government is the nation’s single largest employer and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of workers now fall under the Civil Service system.

The history of Civil Service in New York State is nearly as dramatic as the national story. The spoils system fueled powerful local and state political machines for decades. Political machines would put a turkey on the table for Christmas, fill a coal bin in winter, find a job for someone who needed it. New York City had William Tweed, and Albany had Dan O’Connell.

Boss Tweed met his downfall after The New York Times published stories documenting the corruption in the construction of the New York Courthouse, started in 1862 and not completed a decade later. Tweed was convicted in 1871 and died in prison in 1878.

But it wasn’t until the New Deal legislation, coming out of the Great Depression, weakened the hold of the old-time district leaders on the poor — they could finally get government help as a right instead of a favor — and most municipal jobs became Civil Service jobs, that the power of the city machines were cut.

The movement for reform had grown as social services increased; government began providing what the old political machines had offered.

Frances Perkins — who later became Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s secretary of labor and still later, under President Harry Truman, served on the United States Civil Service Commission — worked first as an aid to New York’s governor, Alfred E. Smith. Smith had started his career as a machine politician but ended as a social reformer.

When Smith died in 1944, two of his old political cronies from Tammany Hall were said to have speculated at his funeral on why he had become a social crusader — they attributed the change to Perkins.

The Civil Service system in New York has grown over the years. The state’s Department of Civil Service now reports that nearly 400,000 local-government employees and over 160,000 state employees are part of the system. The fired Knox workers were part of the local-government, Albany County Civil Service system, classified as labor.

The state’s Department of Civil Service says its mission is “to promote a partnership with our customers that encompasses best practice personnel systems by providing innovative, cost-effective, and efficient solutions for change and diversity based on fitness, merit, and equality of opportunity.”

Where are the best practices in Knox?

Questioned by the town-hall crowd last week, Knox’s attorney said he was, indeed, the son-in-law of one of the newly appointed workers. He said, though, that he had no part in the board’s decision to fire the workers.

But shouldn’t the town’s attorney have advised the board members if they were breaking the law?

All towns, including Knox, should have in place a system that regularly evaluates workers and, if problems are noted, gives them a chance to improve. This is fair to the workers and the citizens alike.

When residents who had read the Enterprise story on the firings questioned the board last week about its decision to violate Civil Service rules, Supervisor Lefkaditis responded, “That’s up to a judge to adjudicate, not us.”

But why should the town open itself to litigation rather than following the rules in the first place? That is unfair to workers and citizens alike.

What would Frances Perkins, who said she worked for “the millions of forgotten, plain common workingmen,” say about this?

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