NOW three years on the job as Oklahoma's labor commissioner, Mark Costello hasn't been in the news much. That may be about to change.
Costello would like to see the state's merit protection law get an overhaul. Presently the law is a 47-page “albatross,” as he calls it, that keeps state government from performing as well as it can.
“We've taken the privilege of state employment and turned it into a property right that needs to be litigated,” Costello told The Oklahoman's editorial board recently. “If we have to lawyer up every time we suspend an employee for a few days ... it freezes up the whole atmosphere.”
An example: Costello said his predecessor, Lloyd Fields, spent $192,000 trying to get rid of one employee.
We hear all the time about how difficult it is to fire bad public school teachers. But at least teachers have to be on the job three years before possibly gaining tenure. State workers become merit protected after just one year, Costello noted.
This issue isn't new. Just this spring, state Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, and Rep. Scott Martin, R-Norman, offered a bill that would have changed the status of unfilled positions for 16 state agencies from classified — that is, protected by the merit system — to unclassified, or at-will, workers. The bill cleared a few hurdles but wound up getting set aside. Heard along the way were the usual arguments that state employees need merit protection in order to keep them from being let go on a whim. That's selling supervisors and agency directors pretty short.
Merit protection was created to prevent cronyism in state hiring. Too often, however, the rules make it difficult to impossible to fire underperforming workers. In some cases, the rules make promotions difficult. And, the salary regulations at times can make it difficult to hire someone who is qualified.