The city Law Department is seeking to lift the cap on the number of Assistant Corporation Counsels it can hire—but the head of the Civil Service Bar Association feared that the proposal could encroach upon the 1,000 non-competitive attorneys working at more than 40 municipal agencies and the Housing Authority.
The Department of Citywide Administrative Services held a Nov. 20 public hearing on the possibility of lifting the cap to allow the Law Department to hire an “unlimited” number of Assistant Corporation Counsels, who aren’t civil-service employees. Saul Fishman, president of the CSBA, argued against the idea at the hearing.
‘Signing a Blank Check’
“You are being asked to sign a virtual blank check, with few if any limitations or guarantees,” Mr. Fishman said during his testimony. “Certainly none has been extended to Agency Attorneys, the members of my union, that their jobs won’t be subsumed by Corporation Counsel.”
Nicholas Paolucci, a spokesman for the Law Department, said in a statement that the cap “was set more than 100 years ago when the Law Department was a fraction of its current size. Removing that ancient cap will help modernize the process of hiring qualified attorneys for the Law Department.”
But Mr. Fishman believed that the proposal followed a pattern of the city curtailing the unionized municipal attorneys’ opportunities for promotion, which has resulted in retention problems. He pointed to a recent example in which the Commission on Human Rights advertised job openings in late May for Agency Attorney Level III—but the posts were withdrawn in early November so that the Commission could focus more on “creating additional [non-union] supervisory positions,” according to an email from the Deputy Commissioner of the agency’s Law Enforcement Bureau.
“We’re a union town. People should have eyes and ears when things move away from civil service,” Mr. Fishman said during a phone interview. “About 90 percent of my members are stuck at a minimum level, and new members leave in frustration because they can’t get the guidance they need.”
Although he doesn’t represent them, the union leader stated that he’s received “innumerable complaints” from Assistant Corporation Counsels about their high caseloads and unreasonable work hours at the Law Department. Mr. Fishman was especially worried about what would happen if exempt-class attorneys began working for the Administration for Children’s Services, which already has “dangerously high caseloads” dealing with serious issues such as child abuse and neglect in Family Court, instead of his members.
“Imagine if [civil-service] attorneys, who at least have representation and contractual protection after one year, were instead exempt class, with absolutely no job protection? Would the public and these extremely vulnerable children be better served by at-will attorneys who couldn’t even complain when they were being forced to handle unlimited caseloads?” he asked during the hearing.
Mr. Paolucci stated that using the exempt title “gives us the flexibility we need to hire the legal talent that is necessary to address new initiatives and complex legal challenges across a variety of areas [and] allows us to function in a manner comparable to other public law offices such as the Attorney General and District Attorneys.”
‘A Slippery Slope’
Mr. Fishman hoped that the proposal would not be “rubber stamped;” DCAS declined to comment on the matter.
“My concern is that this administration is looking for more and more ways to hire exempt class employees who aren’t subject to collective bargaining and don’t have the protections that come with it,” he said. “That’s why I’m fighting mad against this slippery slope away from civil service.”
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