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Civil-Service Reform in Connecticut.
HON. WILLIAM F. HENNEY, MAYOR
OF HARTFORD), CONN.
An examination of the history of municipalities in the United States would satisfy any unbiased observer that the great American virtue is patience. An unkind critic might not hesitate to call it by another name. It seems incredible that an intelligent people could be brought to endure what has been meted out to so many communities in our vast domain under the name and form of government.
Extortion, oppression, incompetency, ignorance, absolute disregard of the relation of means to ends, reckless extravagance, unblushing selfishness, personal ambition and appointments to office made only to further that ambition; all these and a host of other unwholesome factors in public administration, have been heroically suffered upon the specious plea that they are necessary to maintain one political party or the other in power. But a new era is dawning upon the land. Vore and more thinking men are taking the position that the laws of business are applicable alike to public and private enterprise, and that their violation in either case means disaster. More and more they are realizing that the electoral franchise not only confers great privileges but imposes solemn duties as well. In keeping with this attitude they are manifesting a disposition to question every premise on which the spoils system is based, and to challenge its necessity and even its usefulness as an element in party supremacy or success. The proposition that the merit system of appointments to office is the proper one is no new propaganda.
Prior to 1820, the political leaders of the country tacitly agreed that changes of administration should not affect subordinate public office holders. Webster and Calhoun and Clay were of one mind in this regard. It remained for Andrew Jackson to inaugurate a system which for half a century debauched political morals and defrauded a long suffering people of the capable service which was their due. It was a blunder, which, like all blunders in public administration, was bound to be farreaching in its disastrous effects. Von Holst says of Jackson that his chief characteristic was the possession and exercise of "a demoniacal will.” The bitter fruit of the system he inaugurated and enforced goes to show that the adjective was not idly employed. In 1853, and again in 1872, an attempt was made to stem the tide of abuses brought about by this system, but in both instances the attempt proved a failure for the lack of support of public opinion.
In 1876 and 1880, the national conventions of both parties declared for the merit system, and in 1883, the civil service act became a law. Several states, notably New York and Massachusetts, followed the federal government in the enactment of a civil service law, but thus far Connecticut has failed to act upon the matter. Nevertheless the spirit of a reformed civil service, with tenure of office by merit and during good behavior, is abroad in the state, and has manifested itself in the fact that for many years there have been few changes in the clerical force at the Capitol, and that competent men, of whatever political opinions, have been undisturbed in office through the changes of state administration. Historically considered, Connecticut has accomplished little in the way of civil service reform legislation. Much has been done, however, in creating a strong and intelligent public opinion in favor of the merit system to the end that town and city and state may render the taxpayer his due by giving him capable service for reasonable compensation. In the cities especially this spirit has been increasingly active. Theoretically, most of our citizens are civil service reformers. They realize the disasters bound to follow from the spoils system carried out to its logical ends. For what results would follow, for example, if all the policemen and firemen of a city were swept out of office at each change of municipal administration, and new and untried men substituted in their places? It is at the practical inauguration of a reformed civil service that our citizens draw back and hesitate. Such a service proposes three things:
1. Practical tests for fitness for office to determine eligibility thereto.
2. Promotion in office on merit.
3. Tenure of office during good behavior. Most men find little difficulty in accepting the last two propositions. The bugaboo that such a system would tend to create an office-holding class, independent of the people and not accountable to them, has been long ago laid to rest. Office is not hereditary under this system, nor does the legislature lose any of its powers to amend the laws and correct abuses. The real difficulty in enacting a civil service law lies in the fear that it might place old and faithful public servants at the peril of successfully competing in examination with all comers for their positions, and, in case of failure, losing them. A candidate for office, a few weeks ago, was asked the question whether he was in favor of a reformed civil service, eligibility to subordinate offices to be determined by a system of competitive examinations. He answered, "Yes, so long as it doesn't apply to present incumbents." There is a great deal of this feeling abroadl in Connecticut; in cities it is the disposition of policemen and firemen toward a civil service board, and this disposition is shared in many instances by the commissions having these departments in charge. The fact is, however, that not one of the proposed laws I have seen establishing a civil service board proposes to disturb present incumbents; these laws deal with applicants for office and for promotion. Two or three years ago the City of Ilartford appointed a committee to prepare and submit a draft of a modern charter. The committee did its duty and submitted an excellent charter establishing single-headed commissions and providing for a civil service board. The proposed charter was approved by the Court of Common Council and submitted to the freemen of the city, who rejected it. A variety of influences combined to accomplish its defeat. Some were not ready to endorse single-headed commissions with tenure of office during good behavior, while others were not prepared for a civil service board. Among the latter were some of the older supernumerary policemen. Some of them had been supernumeraries for about ten years, awaiting promotion to the regular force; they had expended $100 for a uniform, had been compelled, without pay, to attend drills, and now believed they were to be required to stand tests in examination for promotion, and to be appointed or rejected in accordance with the results of those tests, whereas, under the existing system they were promoted in accordance with seniority in the service. They felt that the supernumerary who had been appointed within the year might surpass them in an examination, and seize the prize for which they had been ten years in waiting. This feeling is but natural, and circuimstances are conceivable under which the new law would work a hardship, but in most instances the grievance is imaginary. The misconception is as to the scope of proposed civil service examinations. No one would expect an applicant for the police force or for promotion therein to pass an examination in the calculus. On the contrary, the examination would naturally be of such a kind and on such topics as an experienced supernumerary would be likely to excel in. He should certainly be able to hold his own in siich a test against a novice. Moreover, length of service and experience would be weighty factors in determining his grade in the examination. But these things are usually lost sight of, and the officer too often regards the whole scheme as a trap to catch the unwary. Carlyle says “so few think, there's the rub." And the obstacle to the establishment of a civil service board, in the cities of Connecticut, is that so few understand the scope and character of such a board.
It is of the utmost importance to the cause of civil service reform in this State that the local association conduct a vigorous, intelligent and enthusiastic campaign of education-a campaign which will be a continuous performance in teaching civil service reform methods. This teaching should be in the concrete. The local association should prepare, for instance, a sample examination paper for an applicant for membership in the police force of Connecticut cities, and distribute copies of it among the various police departments. A similar course should be pursued with reference to the fire departments. Other sample examination papers might be prepared and distributed among the various civil service departments of the state capitol.
These papers, if intelligently prepared, would show at a glance that only those things are required that might reasonably be expected of an applicant for a given position. They would at once rob the proposition to establish civil service boards of its terrors. It should be made clear, too, that the new law affected only applicants for promotion. No law, I am convinced, would have much chance for legislative sanction, which would throw into the maelstrom of competitive examination large groups of faithful minor officers grown old in the public service. Legislation on this subject should concern itself with the future rather than with the past.
Under these limitations, and in view of the steadily growing sentiment in favor of civil service reform in this State, the day, I believe, is not far distant when Connecticut will have a competent and satisfactory law regulating appointments and promotions in the civil service of the State. Among our cities, New Haven already has a civil service board, which I am told is giving reasonable satisfaction. It is governed by provisions much the same in substance as those of the proposed law creating a civil service board for Hartford which was rejected by the people. This same law, under direction of the Common Council, was submitted to the last legislature as an amendment to the city charter and was killed in the Senate. The civil service reformers of Hartford have not, however, become weary of well doing, and will again present the proposed amendment to the next legislature and ask for its passage. I hope the local association will present a similar bill for the regulation of appointments to minor state offices. The proposed Hartford amendment is as follows:
CIVIL SERVICE BOARD, Section 1. There shall be in said city a civil service board composed of three members, appointed by the Mayor, no more than two members of which shall be of