After Roy Cooper’s election, the legislature ordered that the new Democratic governor should have hundreds fewer political appointees than his Republican predecessor, Pat McCrory.
It fell to McCrory to decide which political jobs subject to hiring and firing would become civil-service jobs whose employees are protected from being fired without cause. In his last weeks in office, McCrory handed out those protections to jobs ranging from aquarium director to Division of Motor Vehicles field services director to economic development manager – as well as to senior administration positions held by employees with ties to McCrory.
The result was to make it more difficult for Cooper to fire 124 people McCrory had hired into state government, as well as hundreds more who predated McCrory’s term.
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The Office of State Human Resources released a list of affected employees this week in response to a public records request by The News & Observer.
Most of the 61,000 employees in state agencies are covered by the state’s Personnel Act, meaning they can’t be fired without cause. But a fraction are exempt from those personnel protections so governors can hire and fire political appointees. Those numbers have gone up and down in recent years:
▪ After McCrory took office in 2013 as the first Republican governor in decades, the legislature raised the number of positions the governor had the power to exempt to 1,500.
▪ McCrory didn’t use all of those slots. At the beginning of last November, he had classified 1,212 jobs as exempt from the protections.
▪ As part of a series of moves in December to reduce Cooper’s appointment powers, the Republican-dominated legislature lowered the maximum to 425 positions.
▪ By the end of December, McCrory had changed 908 jobs to give them Personnel Act protections. Of those, 105 positions were vacant and 803 had employees who gained the protections. McCrory’s administration had hired 124 of the affected employees, while 679 had been working in state government before McCrory took office in 2013, according to the Office of State Human Resources.
McCrory’s chief of staff, Thomas Stith, said in an email Wednesday that the positions were reclassified to comply with the special session law reducing the number of protected positions.
“We were implementing state law,” Stith said. “The positions were identified to comply with the reduced number of exempt designations.”
The number of positions reclassified by McCrory, however, went beyond what the law required and left only about 300 positions that the governor has the power to hire and fire.
Many of the reclassified jobs were lower-level positions like “senior psychologist,” “attorney II” and “correctional facility administrator.”
Others include the chief operating officer of the state budget office. Chloe Gossage gained Personnel Act protections in that role, which has a salary of $126,875. She’d previously been a policy director for McCrory and worked for the conservative Civitas Institute prior to joining the administration. Gossage is no longer on staff at the agency, according to the directory on its website.
N.C. Council for Women executive director Gale Wilkins, a former Republican candidate for Raleigh City Council, was also reclassified but is no longer in the position. The website for the organization, which is part of the Department of Administration, now lists an interim director.
State Capital Police Chief Glen Allen and deputy chief Anthony Moss also now have protected positions. Allen, a former Clayton police chief, has led the law enforcement agency since 2013.
Others in reclassified positions are longtime state employees, including Dr. Deborah Radisch, the state’s chief medical examiner, who’s worked at the Department of Health and Human Services since 1997.
Asked if the reclassifications are hindering Cooper’s efforts to build his administration, spokesman Ford Porter issued a brief statement: “Agencies are moving forward to hire well qualified people for all open positions, regardless of classification.”
The State Employees Association of North Carolina has argued that the 1,500 political positions under McCrory was too many.
“Of those 900 positions that he took from exempt to non-exempt, how many should never have been exempt?” SEANC lobbyist Ardis Watkins said. “We believe that a large number of people were inappropriately classified as exempt by McCrory. If he moved them back to non-exempt, he was only fixing what he never should have broken in the first place.”
Watkins pointed out that McCrory’s original reclassifications resulted in lawsuits from employees who claimed they were wrongfully fired after their jobs became political appointments. Some of those cases are still making their way through the courts, and the fired workers could have a stronger case if their old jobs have been switched back to nonpolitical.
“It would certainly be relevant evidence,” Watkins said.
The reclassifications weren’t the only way some political appointees were able to keep their jobs as cabinet agencies transitioned from Republican to Democratic control.
McCrory’s Department of Environmental Quality secretary, Donald van der Vaart, demoted himself in December to a job as section chief in the air quality division – a position that comes with Personnel Act protections.
Two top aides to van der Vaart, deputy secretary John Evans and executive director for energy Jenny Kelvington, also demoted themselves, according to personnel records. As of early February, all three were still employed at the agency.
As governor, Cooper could change which positions have protected status as long as he doesn’t exceed 425 political positions. But any action he takes could be complicated by a provision in the December special session giving personnel protections to those who had been continuously employed in a permanent job for the previous year. That is one of several restrictions on his authority that Cooper is suing over.
Cooper is already facing a lawsuit from David Prickett, the former communications director for the Office of State Human Resources, who claims he was improperly fired by the governor’s administration because he is a Republican.