Thursday, May 14, 2009
Proposed Charter Includes Proviso for Civil Service System
By ROGER M. GRACE
On the evening of Oct. 5, 1898, the Board of Freeholders, elected three months earlier, put the finishing touches on a proposed new charter for the City of Los Angeles, containing 406 sections. Among the principal features was the establishment of a civil service system—that is, merit appointments based on competitive examinations.
Civil service was hardly a novel concept. It had existed in China for more than 2,000 years and in Great Britain since 1854. A federal civil service act had gone into effect in the United States on Jan. 16, 1883, largely as the result of dogged efforts by the National Civil Service Reform League.
Although the legislation passed, the federal civil service system was, in 1898, the subject of boiling controversy. In such a climate, the freeholders’ bid to institute a civil service system here, though not inventive, was bold.
Reflecting the climate, a Jan. 6 Associated Press dispatch from Washington reports a spirited address that day in the House of Representatives by Charles Grosvenor, a Republican from Ohio, denouncing the program. The article says:
“One of Mr. Grosvenor’s statements that evoked an enthusiastic outburst in the galleries was in the nature of a warning that if members should refuse to listen to the voice of the people in hostility to the law, they would not be members of the Fifty-sixth House. He argued that the people were overwhelmingly opposed to the law and said that hundreds of thousands of Republicans felt a secret sympathy with Mayor Van Wyck of New York who announced that none but Democrats would be appointed to office under the new city government.”
Debate over civil service was sparked by an appropriations bill. A decision not to allocate funds for the Civil Service Commission would have killed program—and there was considerable sentiment for doing that.
A bill had been introduced Jan. 6 which would have scaled back the system, limiting it to clerks in the District of Columbia and a few large cities, and only those clerks who earned less than $1,800 a year (about $48,000 in today’s dollars). The clerks could only keep their jobs for five years; they could, however, apply for reappointment and, if hired, would be outside the civil service system.
The National Civil Service Reform League sought to rally opposition to that bill from all quarters. The Feb. 3, 1898 edition of the Los Angeles Times reports:
“The board of directors of the Chamber of Commerce met yesterday afternoon. Director [Lewis A.] Groff, chairman of the Committee on Law and Legislation to whom was referred a communication from the National Civil Service Reform League asking the chamber to take action with respect to the passage of House Bill No. 5854, reported against passage of said bill. The report was unanimously adopted.”
Groff, as I’ve mentioned, was one of the 15 men on the Board of Freeholders.
Back in 1898, political party bosses reigned in Los Angeles and jobs were conferred by the various commissions as rewards for service to the party.
The Herald’s editorial of Dec. 6, 1898, in urging voter ratification of the proposed charter, reflects upon the recently concluded Spanish American War and comments:
“A few months ago we were all aroused to the fighting pitch in demanding that Cuba be rescued from the shackles of Spanish tyranny. Today Los Angeles, enmeshed in the web of ward politics, appealingly begs for release.”
The Dec. 3 edition of the Express opines:
“The new charter introduces civil service rules for subordinate positions in the city departments. At present there is a general overturning every two years and appointments are determined by partisan political influence. If the changes are made the rich and poor, the influential and the friendless, will be tried by the same standard in the selections for positions.”
Teachers, the editorial says, “would be assured of permanent positions,” if they maintained competency. It notes:
“At present teachers are appointed every year, subject to political influence and ‘pulls.’ ”
A Times editorial on Nov. 20 remarks:
The introduction of the merit system in the appointment and tenure of office of city employees... is in line with the best modern thought on the subject.”
The Executive Committee of the Board of Freeholders—comprised of attorneys R.H.F. Variel, H.W. O’Melveny and H.T. Lee—responded in a written statement to objections to the proposed charter that had been voiced by labor. A civil service system should please labor, the statement says, explaining:
“Any man or woman in this city, without regard to pull or influence, who has the proper capacity, can confidently hope to compete with everybody else in the effort to secure an appointment under civil service rules.”
Another assurance to labor was that the charter was not deficient by virtue of an absence of an assurance of a minimum wage of $2 a day. That was already in state law.
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