Tensions high as Aurora's Civil Service Commission defends role

The Denver Gazette
The Denver Gazette

After roughly three hours of often-tense discussion, Aurora’s Civil Service Commission wrapped up a meeting with the city’s independent consent decree monitor and city councilmembers Tuesday.

Officials hotly debated proposals that could change who holds the most power in hiring entry-level police officers and firefighters.

Commission members met to review a new study from the independent monitor that evaluated the commission’s hiring practices and recommended changes. Commissioners also reacted to a resolution that has been drafted by Councilmember Dustin Zvonek that would shift more hiring power to the city’s human resources, police and fire departments.

Interim Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates fiercely criticized the commission in recent weeks, saying it is taking an inordinate amount of time to vet candidates and hiring at too low a rate, exacerbating a staffing crisis within the department. He supported Zvonek’s proposal.

Commission Chairman Harold Johnson said the proposed changes would give a concerning amount of power to the department chiefs and argued that removing checks and balances that the commission provides could usher in a good ‘old boy' and legacy hiring culture, where friends and family are given preferential treatment.

The commission was created to prevent that very issue, he said, also refuting Oates' critiques.

Other commissioners and commission staff said Zvonek’s resolution is moving forward too fast.

City departments, they argued, would not be able to absorb the workload to be ready for the next academy. The monitor’s study unfairly portrayed how they conduct hiring for the city’s police and fire agencies, they said.

“I feel this is a little bit premature,” Commissioner Barb Cleland said.

The study’s findings

Lead monitor Jeff Schlanger led much of the presentation about the independent consent decree monitor’s latest report.

The study found what he called a lack of clarity regarding who is responsible for maintaining accurate and up-to-date job postings. The study’s recommendation is to have a specific unit within the police and fire departments coordinate with human resources to oversee job listings, ensure they are accurate and include all the resources an applicant needs to navigate the hiring process.

The study also determined there is no system in place to keep police and fire departments informed about the progress applicants are making in the hiring process, and that there has been a failure to engage with applicants along the way. There is no investment in guiding or mentoring applicants to increase the odds they join the city’s agencies, the study added.

It recommended the commission ensure that Aurora Police Department and Aurora Fire Rescue officials are kept apprised of where applicants are in the pipeline and provide mentorship to applicants swiftly.

There is a lack of systematic coordination among police, fire and the commission and a lack of involvement from the human resources department, which should change, Schlanger said.

No single entity oversees the entire hiring process — from recruitment to hiring to training, which results in fragmented and incomplete data that cannot offer insight into how efficient the system is, Schlanger said.

“This was done in the spirit of trying to build consensus, as to what was best not only for each agency but for the City of Aurora,” Schlanger said.

Tensions boil

Tension between the commission and the city departments simmered throughout the meeting.

Members of the commission and staff interjected during the presentation to raise questions and to rebut certain findings in the report and other accusations the commission has faced from city departments.

A frustrated Councilmember Danielle Jurinsky asked the group to let the monitor team finish the presentation.

“I mean, this is crazy,” she said.

Schlanger sought to de-escalate the tension.

The report was not intended to be a critique of anyone or the commission’s process, he said.

Rather, it meant to assess the current process, how to improve that and ensure the city complies with the consent decree, Schlanger said, adding the recommendations can also be adjusted as conversations continue.

Zvonek, who joined the first half of the meeting, said his proposed resolution would only require the commission to more heavily involve the city departments in the hiring and give them final say in which candidates are sent to the training academy. It does not specify how the commission should accomplish those goals, he said, although multiple commissioners said they interpreted the drafted legislation as critically minimizing their role in hiring.

A city attorney said if the resolution ever does pass, the council still cannot force the commission to change its rules, but that new legislation would likely come down the road if they don’t.

Commissioners said city departments are understating the police and fire department’s role in current hiring practices. Representatives of the fire and police departments assist commissioners in reviewing applications and during interviews, commissioners said, countering comments from other city staff who said departments are not meeting their new hires until they reach the academy.

In recent meetings, the commission has come under fire from the police department, which says about 2% of applicants are ultimately hired, less than a neighboring agency that hires at a rate of 7%. Oates expressed anger that the city’s most recent academy received three people, while other metro area departments were graduating 30.

Hiring challenges

Commissioners and commission staff explained on Tuesday how the pool of candidates dwindles drastically.

During the most recent hiring round, the city started with close to 380 applicants for entry-level police positions, commission staff said.

To advance, applicants must meet minimum qualifications established by the commission and pass a national test. The number who met both of those criteria dropped from 380 to 106. The 106 candidates had to then pass further testing, such as a polygraph test, and undergo background investigations.

It's at this hiring stage that the commission starts to see the number of candidates plummet again, often because people withdraw, the commission’s administrator Matt Cain said.

Candidates may not have expected such an extensive background check, found another job, or lost interest in the profession, among other reasons for withdrawing, he said.

In the last hiring process, the pool dropped from 106 at this stage to 37.

From that group, the commission selected about 15 people to interview and advanced seven people to the most recent training academy.

Johnson said he spoke with a representative of the Denver civil service commission who said its hiring timeline is comparable to Aurora’s and that it also hires at a similar rate. The city recently graduated roughly 30 people from the training academy, but started with an applicant pool closer to 1,000, Johnson said.

Next steps

The commission and police department have both expressed an interest in revisiting some minimum requirements candidates must meet or else be automatically disqualified from the running.

That includes a rule that candidates may not have used marijuana within one year of applying. Officials did not say how they might adjust that rule but acknowledged it limits the number of potential hires in a state where marijuana is legal.

Oates’ chief of staff asked the commission to consider changing rules so that the department might be able to reengage seven applicants the department found who were recently cut from the hiring process. She said some were automatically disqualified because of clerical errors in their application, while others did not meet minimum requirements that might be too restrictive.

The department is worried about losing those people if they can’t reapply before the next academy, she said.

“We are desperate,” she said.

The commission ultimately agreed to meet later this week to review rules. Another report on recruiting practices is expected at a later date.

Cain, the commission’s administrator, said for such a critical issue, it’s no surprise passionate opinions arose throughout the meeting.

“We knew it would take three hours of therapy to work through,” he said to laughs from the room.

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