Draft audit of Legislative Research Commission reveals agency plagued by low staff morale

01/27/2015 09:21 AM

The National Conference of State Legislatures’ draft audit of the Legislative Research Commission doesn’t uncover secrets that could swing elections, nor does it reveal sordid tales of sexual harassment.

“I think for anybody who thinks something in this is going to be headline or newsworthy, I think they’re going to be somewhat disappointed because this is a very innocuous report, does not relate anything to what people are assuming,” Senate President Robert Stivers said in a conference call with reporters Monday.

But when the NCSL arrived in November 2013 on the heels of the abrupt resignation of former LRC Director Bobby Sherman, it found a largely dissatisfied nonpartisan staff at the agency and, in its draft report submitted to lawmakers in April, recommends a sweeping overhaul of personnel practices at the LRC.

“We believe that the issues raised by staff at the General Assembly have merit and need to be addressed,” NCSL auditors wrote in the report. “As suggested above, failure to do so may jeopardize the future effectiveness of the LRC. Fortunately, the LRC now enjoys a unique window of opportunity for change.”

Stivers sent a letter to House Speaker Greg Stumbo Monday, requesting the NCSL’s draft audit be publicized on the LRC’s website. With the 30-day legislative session set to resume next week, Stivers said he wanted lawmakers to focus on their work “without any distractions.”

Stumbo, who had asked that releasing the report be put on the agenda for the Feb. 4 meeting of legislative leaders, agreed. The Prestonsburg Democrat looks “forward to working with (Stivers) on some long-needed administrative changes in the LRC,” he said in a statement.

The report can be downloaded here: NCSL draft audit of LRC.pdf

Lawmakers “don’t have a clue”

The NCSL, which is being paid $42,000 for the work, interviewed 115 lawmakers and LRC staffers and received 399 survey responses, then compared Kentucky’s legislative staffing practices with those in Connecticut, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Maine, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee and Virginia.

The report indicates some morale problems in the LRC’s nonpartisan workforce.

NCSL auditors included a number of quotes from their interviews with legislative employees, such as, “Morale is poor. There’s no structure (and staff) don’t know why things happen,” and, “Unless you’re a favorite, you’re not going to get anywhere,” and, “We haven’t had (a staff meeting) for a decade. You end up feeling like a cog,” and, “Members don’t have a clue about how mad staff are.”

“Not all LRC employees will agree with these remarks, but we heard comments similar to these from staff throughout the organization,” auditors wrote in the draft report. “We believe they represent the opinions of the majority of LRC nonpartisan employees.”

Pay was a chief concern for LRC workers interviewed by NCSL auditors, who noted no topic “came up more often or with as much passion.” LRC staffers feel the agency’s compensation practices are arbitrary, and their requests for salary increases are often placed in “the file,” according to the draft audit.

The NCSL found a number of structural concerns in the LRC’s pay plan. In a scatter plot of the salaries of legislative secretaries, a long-time staffer with 15 years’ experience earns less than $46,000, about the same as another secretary with about a year of experience.

Auditors suggested the LRC create job descriptions and pay scales not only for nonpartisan staff, but partisan staff as well. What’s more, the agency should develop an employee evaluation system, establish a clearer career path for its 388 full-time workers, re-evaluate its bill drafting and compensatory time processes, and post all job openings, among other suggestions by the NCSL.

But from Stivers’ perspective, lawmakers didn’t get exactly what they expected. Stivers said he wanted the NCSL to also look at how much influence legislators have on day-to-day staff, differences between partisan and nonpartisan employees, and a deeper comparison with other state legislatures.

Stivers, R-Manchester, said lawmakers never requested a review of LRC’s salaries and promotion process by NCSL.

“They went ahead and, in my opinion, jumped the gun and did a wage and hour study, and that’s something we didn’t ask for but they put in anyway,” he said.

Report still incomplete

Stivers thinks releasing the NCSL’s draft audit is inappropriate and counterproductive to completing the report, but Stumbo backed publicizing the draft in response to open records requests in October.

Lawmakers haven’t submitted a response to the NCSL’s report, with Stivers remaining optimistic he and Stumbo can agree on how to move forward.

“We’ve requested on a couple occasions that this be done,” Stivers said. “I don’t know what (Stumbo’s) rationale would be, and I hope, I truly hope after this report is out and people see it that we can sit down and discuss how we can get a completed report.”

With the audit incomplete, interim LRC Director Marcia Seiler remains in transition. Legislative leaders said they would find a permanent replacement for Sherman once the NCSL completes the report.

But Seiler received some praise for NCSL auditors, who noted the head of the LRC’s Office of Education Accountability has taken steps to improve communication and initiate more formal staff meetings.

“For example, we learned that the committee staff administrators — a key group of middle managers at the LRC — had not met for five years until the interim director called them together,” auditors wrote in the report.

Stivers said he’s unsure whether Seiler, who took over after Sherman resigned in September 2013 amid questions about the LRC’s handling of a sexual harassment scandal, is interested in the full-time job

“But I would say that Marcia Seiler has done a very good job in the role she’s been put in, which has been a little tenuous over the last year and a half,” he said.

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.

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