Civil service bait and switch

Two black juvenile probation officers say they've hit a glass ceiling despite being top performers

Roger Gainey thought he had what it takes to become a supervisor at the San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department.

He certainly met the basic criteria: "May be required to restrain hostile or agitated youth.... Requires ability to work in stressful situations.... Minimum four years of verifiable professional experience as a juvenile probation officer."

Gainey has worked as a probation officer in the department for eight years and received satisfactory performance evaluations from superiors. His big, muscular frame commands attention from people around him, even violent young toughs. But his soft facial features and cool manner seem to convey the thoughtful side necessary to work with directionless teens. "I've worked in all of the units," he told the Guardian, "pretty much throughout the whole department."

Most of all, Gainey, an African American, earned the top score on a difficult civil service exam that was offered in March for the first time since Gainey began at the department, beating 24 other applicants gunning for the same promotion.

So why did department managers skip over him and select four other applicants with lower scores on the combined written and oral test?

Alphanso Oliphant, who's also black, believed he too possessed all of the right qualities to become a supervisor and lead 10 to 12 staffers in this often tense environment. He's worked as a juvenile probation officer for 21 years and earned the second-highest score.

But he was also passed over for advancement.

Oliphant speaks deliberately, with a soothing voice, his visage distinguished by weary eyes and a slender moustache. He and Gainey wore well-pressed suits and detention center access badges around their necks as we met recently over lunch in West Portal, not far from the department's central office on Woodside Avenue.

"I've had numerous supervisors," Oliphant said. "Not one has ever, ever raised the issue of inability to perform, inability to communicate properly, inability to work with the families. That's all verifiable."

Gainey's current assignment involves working with about 40 young people at a Juvenile Probation Department–affiliated school known as the Principal Center Collaborative Campus, where many of the students have drug and alcohol problems and require mental health services.

Oliphant is a court officer responsible for presenting the department's recommendations for cases appearing on the docket each day — the top task he can perform under his current job classification.

The department first announced the available supervisory positions in January, and three days' worth of examinations were taken by applicants this spring. But in the week following the test period, a personnel manager for the department named Samuel Kinghorne made an agreement with a union representative from the Operating Engineers Local 3 (who did not return calls seeking comment) to change a long-standing civil service rule reguutf8g how individuals are promoted.

The cornerstone of the city's civil service system is its merit component. By requiring that applicants for available positions be given exams, the city can ensure that those with the highest qualifications will get the job. The Civil Service Commission here is one of the oldest in the nation, in fact, first formed in 1900 as a response to the entrenched municipal cronyism rampant in cities around the nation, including San Francisco.

For years top scorers on civil service exams were selected for open positions under what's known as the rule of three.

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