There's something honorable, even patriotic, about entry-level jobs in city government being open to all comers and filled fairly on the basis of merit. To ensure that that happens, the Los Angeles city personnel department gives examinations — tailored to each job — to all who fill out applications and meet the experience requirements. That's what "open to all" in the City Charter means.
But in the past few years, with jobs scarce and job-seekers abundant, some entry-level jobs have attracted thousands of applicants. When the city announced openings for clerk-typists in 2007, for instance, it got 11,518 applicants. It hired 114.
Overwhelmed and short of resources, the city now wants to amend the charter to allow the personnel department the option of limiting the number of applicants tested for civil service jobs. That's the chief purpose of Measure Q, on the March 8 ballot.
The city is currently obligated by the language of the charter to test everyone who applies. The personnel department managers say that often means days of testing and many further hours spent scoring thousands of candidates. Because the city often tests people in groups, those applicants in the first group who test high enough are put on the "eligibility list" first and have the best shot at open jobs. Remaining applicants may wait months for the next testing dates. If they pass, they might wait years on the eligibility list — even if they score well and place high on that list. Eventually the list expires.
The proposed amendment would let the personnel department skip testing that second, third or umpteenth group of people who have applied but have no realistic chance of being hired. The city's personnel managers say this would save time and money (how much, they don't know) without harming anyone.
The city would still be required to advertise the job for two weeks before the application filing period. The city would still follow all rules about nondiscrimination. The bulletin advertising the job would have to spell out how the application process is being limited, according to Margaret Whelan, the general manager of the city's personnel department. And this amendment would not affect promotional exams within city government.
Some things about the amendment worry us. We wish it had specified some basic parameters for applicant pool cutoffs. (For example: no less than a 24-hour period for filing an application; no cutoff of an applicant pool before it reaches 1,000.) But we agree that the city needs a way to deal with the huge pools of applicants.
It is profoundly important that the civil service entry-level job application process be as transparent and as fair as possible. So although we support Measure Q, we want the personnel department to be explicit about applicant pool cutoffs in its job bulletins. And we expect the Civil Service Commission, labor groups and elected officials to be vigilant and raise objections to any limits that seem unreasonable. Job candidates have the right to voice specific concerns as well, and we encourage them to do so.
Measure Q would also allow the city to extend emergency appointments from 240 days to no longer than a year. We don't see this as an end-run around the merit system. The other provisions in the amendment are straightforward adjustments to employment issues and not problematic.