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Richardson Appointees Move to Classified Jobs

By Thomas J. Cole
Journal Staff Writer
          More of Gov. Bill Richardson's political appointees have slid into career civil service jobs with state government in recent months.
        Despite their reclassifications and new job titles, many appointees are doing the same jobs they did previously and earning the same or close to their old salaries. One appointee is earning even more.
        Appointees, or so-called exempt employees, serve at the pleasure of the governor. Career, or classified, workers can be dismissed only for cause after a one-year probationary period, but time spent in exempt positions doesn't count toward the probation time. That means the clock starts ticking when appointees move to career positions.
        Transfers to career slots are common near the end of an administration as political appointees — generally among the top wage earners in state government — try to avoid a pink slip under a new governor.
        Richardson on Sunday ordered a suspension of hiring by agencies under his control, but an internal administration memo says the order doesn't apply in cases where agencies have completed hiring decisions and offered jobs.
        That loophole makes it possible more appointees will move into classified jobs in coming weeks.
        The hiring suspension does apply in cases where jobs have been advertised but not offered, according to the administration memo. Last week alone, the state Personnel Office posted 78 classified jobs on its website. The postings were removed after Richardson's order.
        Gov.-elect Susana Martinez, a Republican, will be sworn in Jan. 1 to replace Richardson, a Democrat.
        Since July, at least seven gubernatorial appointees have moved to career jobs in government.
        The transfers bring to at least 22 the number of appointees who have been put in classified slots over the past 13 months.
        Richardson appointees who have moved to classified jobs in recent months include:
        • Jim Norton, director of the Environmental Protection Division to chief of the division's Petroleum Storage Tank Bureau at the Environment Department. Old salary: $91,749. New salary: $80,221.
        Norton, a former public school teacher who has worked with several environmental groups, remains acting director of the Environmental Protection Division, according to a spokeswoman.
        • Ralph Vigil, assistant education secretary for vocational rehabilitation to deputy director for vocational rehabilitation services. Old salary: $86,241. New salary: $89,336.
        In making the move, Vigil returns to the job he held before becoming assistant secretary two years ago.
        • Marcella Ortega, administrative services director at the Department of Children, Youth and Families to deputy director of the Public Health Division at the Health Department. Old salary: $89,515. New salary: Same.
        • Francie Cordova, director of the Labor Relations Division to chief of the division's Labor and Industrial Bureau at the Department of Workforce Solutions. Old salary: $85,153. New salary: $76,636.
        The other appointees who have moved to classified jobs in recent months are an ex-spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, a former public defender and a woman who worked as a lawyer in the Governor's Office.
        At a news conference Tuesday at the Capitol, Martinez said her transition team will examine the movement of Richardson appointees to classified jobs as part of a larger review of government personnel.
        She said appointees can apply for their current jobs or other positions with the incoming administration and that she is interested in keeping the best and brightest in government.
        Martinez reiterated her campaign pledge to reduce the number of gubernatorial appointees where possible.
        The number of appointees ballooned about 50 percent, to near 500, under Richardson. The increase paralleled the growth of government during the governor's first several years in office.
        Budget troubles in recent years forced Richardson and lawmakers to scale back the size of government, including the numbers of exempt employees and classified workers.
        In September 2009, there were about 490 permanent appointee positions authorized by the Legislature, with 55 of those vacant. As of last month, there were about 360 permanent slots, with 67 of those vacant. Richardson also has seven unauthorized exempt workers, including a maid at the Governor's Mansion.
        Known to be loyal to his employees, Richardson has been sensitive over the years about his appointees, many of whom landed the jobs after they or family members made campaign contributions to him.
        The Governor's Office announced in the fall of 2009 that the positions of 59 exempt employees would be eliminated last January, but the administration refused to provide the names or positions, citing a need to protect the dignity of those losing their jobs.
        More recently, the administration declined to provide a separate list of current appointees, their titles and salaries, as it has done on numerous occasions over the past eight years. It gave no reason for the denial.
        UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Thom Cole can be reached in Santa Fe at (505) 992-6280 or at tcole@abqjournal.com.

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