Secrecy Lets Officials Corrupt the City’s Civil Service System

Secrecy in government rarely serves the public interest. In America, government at all levels is expected to be transparent in matters that impact the people. Thus, in budgeting, contracting, purchasing, staffing, etc. government agencies — and their employees — are expected to be open and honest; they are expected to be free of pretense and deceit.

To understand how devastating the lack of transparency can be, one needs only to recall the Tuskeegee Experiment conducted by the United States Public Health Service. It was a 40-year study involving 399 black men with syphilis. But the men didn’t know they had syphilis; they were told only that they had “bad blood.”

From 1932 to 1972, the USPHS monitored the ravages of that disease, but did not treat it. During that period of time, 28 of the men died of syphilis. Another 100 died of related complications. The wives of 40 of the men were infected. And 19 children contracted the disease at childbirth. And through all that, USPHS kept its shameful secret.

But that was then — in Alabama. Now — in Los Angeles, residents are victims of an equally shameful secret. Since 1993, civil service has been under a sneak attack — it’s been abused by the very officials who’d been expected to make it serve the public!

While campaigning to be mayor, Richard J. Riordan’s mantra had been, “Managers Must Manage; They Must Be Accountable.” But once in office, he told department heads they would henceforth be accountable only to him. And in private meetings, he told the Board of Civil Service Commissioners it would no longer be expected to enforce civil service regulations, or to oversee the city’s employment practices.

Riordan’s plan called for a radical makeover of the civil service system. He knew he’d need the active involvement of a pliable personnel department and the passive support of a cowardly councilmember or two. And fearing that the voters of Los Angeles would reject such a radical scheme, Riordan chose to pursue his illegal plan in secret.

Now, three mayors and 17 years later, the disastrous impact of Riordan’s secret scheme can be seen by those who follow city government. It lets the Personnel department abandon its duty to administer the civil service system. It allows the city council to ignore its duty to oversee the city’s personnel function. And it permits the heads of city departments to violate civil service regulations with impunity.

Whatever their intentions, those three mayors have not raised efficiency in civil service. They have, in fact, mismanaged the budget, stifled employee morale, and crippled public confidence. As a result of their machinations, Angelenos are forced to pay more than they should for services they can get only from the city organization.

But despite these harsh facts, there is good news: In a free society, people get the government they tolerate; they can have the government they want — if they’re willing to work for it. As Americans, we have the power and duty to hold our leaders accountable.

C’mon, Angelenos! Fight Back. Your city’s civil service system is at risk! samuelmsperling@yahoo.com (626) 576-8396