Pima County employees are going to be a lot less happy to see raises if the governor signs a bill pushed through the Legislature at 3:49 a.m. Wednesday, the last morning of the session.

HB 2650 kicks thousands of civilian employees who work for counties other than Maricopa out of the system that protects their rights over everything from pay reductions to demotions and terminations.

Most county employees, except for top administrators, department heads and their deputies, are protected by the merit system.

The bill makes anyone who gets a pay raise or a job reassignment, as well as new hires, unprotected "at-will" employees.

On the last day of the session, a small committee from the House and Senate was working out a compromise on a bill to remove a few more administrative employees from the system. When they got done, nearly every employee in 14 of the 15 counties was included. No explanation was given for leaving Maricopa County exempt.

It passed in a rush of nearly 90 bills that were jammed through so lawmakers could meet a self-imposed 100-day deadline.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry found out about it Thursday and is having it evaluated for what it means to the county's about 7,000 employees.

While he said he won't take a firm position until he knows more, he's concerned it appears to nullify the merit-selection process, which requires open and competitive hiring.

Huckelberry said he supports the merit-system protections. "While some might say it's cumbersome, it has its own built-in checks and balances, so it's inappropriate to do away with that."

Deputy County Attorney Chris Straub said he's still reviewing the bill, but he confirmed it doesn't apply to law-enforcement personnel in the Sheriff's Department.

Kristy Hof, a union member who works in Pima County Fleet Services, was upset law enforcement personnel were exempted, saying all employees should be treated the same.

"I feel insulted," Hof said. "I just can't fathom they could promote somebody, put them in a new position and bag them. It's just another stab in the back.

"It puts a lot of people in jeopardy," Hof said. "It's pretty reprehensible to pull the carpet out from under us."

State Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat who was on the committee, said the language came from Tucson Republican Sen. Frank Antenori, who said he was acting on behalf of a Republican elected official in Santa Cruz County who felt the county staff has too many unresponsive Democrats.

Antenori could not be reached for comment.

Sinema said she's bothered that the bill treats Maricopa County differently and punishes people who do a good job and earn promotions or raises.

State Rep. Steve Farley, a Democrat who voted against the bill, said it "takes us back to the era of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. The whole reason we have merit jobs in the first place is so you don't have people firing competent civil servants and replacing them with political supporters. That is not good government."

But Republicans who supported the bill say it's a matter of fairness.

State Rep. Terri Proud, who represents the northwest area, said public employees should have no more protection than private employees. "If you are not doing your job, you should be fired," she said, adding she hopes it can be a tool to shrink government.

The Arizona AFL-CIO opposed the bill and has asked Gov. Jan Brewer to veto it, but the organization doesn't have a lot of pull with Brewer, said Rebekah Friend, executive director of the Arizona AFL-CIO.

The bill was lost in the wave of bad legislation passed at the end of the session, Friend said. "I have grave concerns about the late-night rush. It gives certain legislators cover."

Union backers are fearful the bill is a head start on a larger effort - noting Brewer proposed doing the same thing to state employees in a 300-page bill that didn't make it through the session. They fear it could be taken up either in a special session or next year.


Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at rbodfield@azstarnet.com or 573-4243. Contact reporter Rob O'Dell at rodell@azstarnet.com or 573-4346.