Thursday, April 1, 2004

Fletcher filling positions slowly, re-evaluating some

The Associated Press

FRANKFORT - Charts lining the walls of a conference room deep inside the governor's office list the top management positions in state government.

As positions are filled, names are written in. Three months into his administration, Gov. Ernie Fletcher says the process of filling positions has been slow. There are more blank spaces than names.

Fletcher has the authority to fill about 900 management positions that are outside the state's merit system, which guarantees jobs from one administration to the next.

People in nonmerit positions serve at the will of the governor.

Fletcher had filled 235 nonmerit positions as of Friday, the most recent figure available.

Other positions are vacant or occupied by holdovers from the previous administration. Fletcher said he doesn't know how many will be filled, but is confident many will be consolidated or eliminated as he implements the first major reorganization of state government in 30 years.

"Our process of filling those positions has been slower than in the past because we are looking for quality individuals," Fletcher said. "In the past, a lot of hiring has been based strictly on political participation and support. That's not what we are doing."

Fletcher has been using a three-step interview process plus background checks. He said hiring decisions are based on ability and integrity, not political background and support.

"We want to transcend politics to the point that we are not going to put people in positions, regardless of political pressure, that are not capable and who do not reflect the values we think are extremely important," Fletcher said. He said Democrats have the same opportunity for a job as Republicans.

The Fletcher administration has 43 principal assistants, less than a fourth the number serving 18 months ago.

Commerce Secretary Jim Host said eliminating principal assistants in the Department of Parks was one of his first actions. "There were four or five of them who worked out in the state," Host said. "We didn't need them; I'm not sure what they did."

Host speculated that 20 to 30 more principal assistant positions will be filled, keeping the number at fewer than 70. At one point in former Gov. Paul Patton's administration, there were more than 200 principal assistants. The General Assembly eliminated many of them last year.

Fletcher said principal assistants will be assigned meaningful duties. "After the General Assembly is over, we'll focus on our tier-two reorganization, and some of those positions will be merged with others to bring even more efficiency to state government," Fletcher said.

Host, who is also the governor's acting communications director, said critics of salaries and appointments should look at state government in a year. He predicted there will be fewer nonmerit positions and government will be more efficient and cheaper.

John McCarthy is Fletcher's point man in recommending people to fill top nonmerit positions. Everyone hired, including cabinet secretaries, goes through the same screening. All job candidates are required to file an application that is available on the Internet.

"That way, we can compare people based on the same information," IcCarthy said.

More than 3,000 people have applied. McCarthy said an applicant's interest is compared with vacancies.

Anyone seen as promising is called in for an initial interview with volunteers who include people with business and government experience. Candidates are asked questions ranging from why they want to work for Fletcher to potential conflicts of interest.

"If the team is satisfied he or she meets the criteria, the candidate goes to the next level, which is with cabinet secretaries and other members of the staff," McCarthy said. That group asks more detailed questions about background, expertise and management capabilities. If there's agreement that the person is qualified, a detailed criminal and credit background check is conducted.

Host said the background checks have eliminated some otherwise qualified people. "We've had people who appear to be qualified, and we were ready to hire them, but we found surprises in background checks," Host said.

People who pass the background check are then recommended to the governor, who makes the final decision.

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