The Star’s coverage of an important local story in February has been inadequate. Anniston City Manager Brian Johnson is seeking to abolish the city’s civil-service system for city employees, with the exception of the police and fire departments. The change would require action by the Alabama Legislature. Johnson has been quoted as saying the civil-service system is “archaic” and “bureaucratic, ” and that the city needs “greater flexibility” over city employees and departments.
After meeting with city employees, Johnson retreated somewhat, deciding that all present employees would continue under civil service; new hires would be under a different system. The change would occur gradually as current employees left or retired.
This would be a substantial revision of personnel policy. It merits careful, public consideration. So far, the process of consideration has not reflected transparency in government. There has been no public discussion or opportunity for public comment, by Patrick McCreless (Feb. 1, 7, 15, Page 1A).
Johnson told The Star, “The City Council is not necessarily going to do anything as a group in any formal way.” Perhaps City Council members are comfortable with the idea that this is a personnel matter that can be handled by the city manager rather than a policy matter that should be considered by the City Council, or maybe not. The Star hasn’t published comments from council members other than Mayor Vaughn Stewart, who was quoted as agreeing with the change proposal. The newspaper has quoted Johnson at length. Lacking are other viewpoints and more analysis.
The Star has published no interviews with city employees. The Feb. 15 article did quote former city manager and member of the civil service board George Monk. He was opposed to the change. Although The Star has been writing about this story for three weeks, the newspaper continues to say the other two members of the civil-service board cannot be reached for comment. In three weeks?
The Star did interview two academic specialists who said there is a trend away from civil services in cities, although one said the trend is caused by more contracting out of city services, a factor that does not seem relevant to Anniston. These were interesting but limited. Additional informed opinion is needed.
The Star noted that Gadsden operates without civil service other than for police and fire personnel. The mayor of Gadsden says it works well. Do city employees there agree? What about other medium-sized cities? What is the position, if any, of the League of Municipalities? How does the present civil-service system work? In what way, specifically, is it unsatisfactory? How has it limited “flexibility?” Why have city employees been concerned about the loss of civil service? If civil service should be abolished for other city employees, why not for police and fire departments?
The Feb. 15 story said the text of the proposed legislation would be available for viewing at the City Hall as early as Feb. 17. The Star has not yet shared the bill’s content with readers. Perhaps it could be posted on The Star’s website.
Getting the scores correct
In a letter earlier this month to The Star’s Speak Out column, reader Jimmy Busby of Golden Springs chastised The Star for printing wrong scores of high school basketball games in the Feb. 8 paper. He wrote that The Star reported that Saks defeated White Plains Feb. 7, but that Saks actually beat Piedmont while White Plains lost to Weaver that day. Was he right?
Yes … and no. It depends on which page of the Feb. 8 Star you read. At the top of the front page there was a photo and a headline, “Cat fight,” wrongly showing Saks winning over White Plains 63-62. However, the games were correctly covered in the sports pages that day, showing Saks winning over Piedmont by that 63-62 score, while White Plains lost to Weaver. But in the most prominent spot in the paper, the top of Page 1, The Star made an embarrassing error.
Another embarrassment was on the front page Feb. 13. The credit line under the pictures with the “Slow freeze” lead story read, “Phtoos by Trent Penny.”
Several fine, helpful articles in February Stars:
• “Risk on the rails” was a good discussion about the risks of hazardous materials on trains following accidents in Alabama and elsewhere, by Tim Lockette (Feb. 9, 1A).
• An article, “30,000 cases on hold,” by Madasyn Czebiniak, showed the impact of judicial backlogs in Alabama following the closure of several forensic labs (Feb. 16, 1A).
• “National Forest workers fit two golden eagles with tracking devices here in efforts to curb the decline in population of the species,” by Laura Camper (Feb. 27, 1A).
Paul Rilling is a retired former editor at The Star.