A hiring freeze has been in effect in Salt Lake County since the Great Recession hit bottom in 2009.
But it really hasn't been a freeze that stopped all hiring. Instead, county departments and independent elected officials could hire people to fill vacancies as long as the County Council concurred. And the council has, signing off on most every request.
Now, with a steadily improving economy, Democratic Councilman Arlyn Bradshaw proposed replacing the hiring freeze with a "vacant position review." It's actually a change in name only, he said, since the council would still have final say on new hirings. But it would allow county human resource officials to get hiring-process paperwork going sooner, with the pledge that offers of employment will not be extended until the council grants approval.
Seems innocent enough.
But the proposal sparked two different concerns when discussed by the council on Tuesday.
The first involved sequestration. With the federal government facing sizable automatic cuts Friday if Congress does not resolve its budget impasse, Republican Councilman Michael Jensen does not want to change the restrictive approach currently in place.
"I want to see what happens," he said. "In the next six weeks, we may have to implement a freeze because of the loss of pass-through dollars on the books. … Until we see how sequestration happens, let's leave it in place."
A separate concern was voiced by the county's elected officials, who feel the council's approach interferes with their autonomy.
County Assessor Lee Gardner said council members have their legitimate input in setting the annual budgets of the independently elected officials auditor, assessor, clerk, district attorney, recorder, sheriff, surveyor and treasurer. But within that budgetary framework, he argued, those officials should be allowed to spend their money as they see fit, without micro-management by the council.
"Why do we have to go back and get approval for a position you've approved already?" Gardner asked.
District Attorney Sim Gill said now may be a good time to review the legality of the council maintaining such sway over elected officials, who contend tight council controls could inhibit their ability to do their jobs.
The hiring freeze, he said, "recognized there were difficult times managing difficult budgets. But now multiple interests and multiple legal responsibilities are converging. You're all trying to do the right thing, but we should do the legal thing as well."
Gill's office will examine the issue in detail before next Tuesday's meeting. By then, Jensen also should know if more county cutbacks may be needed to cope with the sequestration issue.