The Napa Police Officers’ Association recently alleged that the City of Napa’s testing process for an internal police lieutenant exam in 2021 — which no candidate passed — was unfair and raised concerns with the City Public Service Commission earlier this month.
But the commission – an advisory body that oversees the city’s employment system – ultimately took no action after commission members decided they had no authority over the situation.
The City of Napa, like all public agencies, hires employees through a merit-based process. This means the city is required to have systems in place to test job applicants and score them using objective measures. Those with the highest score are usually put on a list of potential hires, which the city’s human resources department then gives to hiring department managers.
NPOA President Darlene Elia wrote an email Feb. 7 to the city’s human resources department detailing the union’s concerns. She said in the email that applications for the promotional lieutenant position opened to current employees in August 2021. Four NPOA members met the minimum qualifications, she wrote, and one member withdrew her application on September exam day for the position, leaving three candidates for the position in total.
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At that time, with only three candidates, Human Resources Director Heather Ruiz and Police Chief Jennifer Gonzales had the option of waiving the exam in accordance with civil service rules, Elia added. But they chose to take the exam instead.
The three candidates then took the test. And all three failed.
Elia specifically took issue with the scoring model used during the process, which she had changed to make it harder to pass the merit-based tests. In the past, she said, the city’s scoring models considered applicants qualified if they averaged, across multiple categories, three or more on a seven-point scale.
But that was changed at one point to require an average of at least 70% — a required average of five on a seven-point scale — to comply with city civil service rules, Elia said. (The exam had three parts: a panel interview representing 50% of the mark, a decision-making exercise representing 25%, and a written exercise also representing 25%, according to MJ Tueros, people and culture manager for the HR department.)
Elia also said the Civil Service Commission was never told that no one had passed the test. She said that indeed the commission is almost never notified when no one passes a test.
“What we’re asking the Public Service Commission is to look at the testing process that went on during this September 2021 lieutenant exam,” Elia said at the meeting. “NPOA’s position is that this process and scoring matrix has been developed to be so difficult that there is no way for any internal candidates to receive a passing grade.”
The city is currently conducting open recruitment for the position of lieutenant, which means external candidates have been able to apply. Elia requested that the open recruitment process be put on hold while the commission reviews the 2021 internal recruitment test process.
But Human Resources Director Ruiz, Napa Police Chief Gonzales and other human resources staff have defended the testing process. Ruiz admitted, however, that due to an error in the city’s process, the exam and other exams without any passing members were not reported to the Public Service Commission.
“We will ensure that all review processes are reported to the commission, whether or not there are candidates on the list,” Ruiz said. “However, the lack of results reporting should not nullify the entire recruitment process.”
Regarding scoring, Ruiz said, a panel of nine subject matter experts — comprised of NDP employees, outside law enforcement officers, other city employees and outsiders – all agreed that none of the candidates had passed the exam.
All panelists are made aware of what a passing score is before the exam through a training process, Ruiz added. She said that when it became clear that no one was going to pass, she even stopped the process and asked the panelists if it was okay for all candidates to fail.
“We walked around the room one by one and each panelist said they agreed with the result and none of the candidates passed,” Ruiz said. “The NPOA is essentially asking the panel, without having observed the performance of these candidates, to substitute your judgment for that of nine expert panelists who have unanimously determined that none of the candidates deserve to pass the test based on their performance.”
Ruiz added that the NPOA or one of the candidates could have appealed the test results to the commission 10 days after being notified, but that did not happen.
Ruiz also said that in an open recruitment process, internal candidates always have advantages over external candidates. For example, they can benefit from the same process before, she said, and because a civil service rule limits the number of eligible candidates to no more than two out of the number of vacancies if an internal candidate makes the cup.
“Let’s say we had six successful recruiting candidates,” Ruiz said. “Three of them are internal, three of them are external. Let’s say, in my hypothesis, the external candidates get 99, 97 and 95. That’s their score. Three internal candidates get 75, 72 and 70. The chief has a vacancy, only the three internal candidates will be referred to the chief, so this gives these internal candidates an advantage, not a disadvantage, even when it is an open recruitment.
Chief Gonzales said that when she became chief last year, she planned to promote internally to lieutenant, but opted to open recruitment after the test results.
Gonzales added that going from a police sergeant to a police lieutenant is one of the toughest advancements in the industry, in part because the promoted officer then becomes part of the department’s leadership team. This, she said, means actions taken by lieutenants are seen as examples of acceptable behavior by lower-ranking officers.
High-quality police work, she added, is also very difficult and she didn’t want to promote someone to lieutenant who hadn’t proven they were ready for the job. Decisions for which lieutenants are responsible can erode public trust, she said, and it is important that modern police leaders raise the standards to “provide the public with the professional level of policing that ‘he deserves”.
“One officer’s split-second decision has the power to upend the entire country, and we saw that recently with the murder of George Floyd,” Gonzales said. “We cannot take these roles and responsibilities lightly, nor will we abuse the public trust by appointing someone who has failed to demonstrate readiness to fill a vacant position. or to give someone below an opportunity for promotion. Our community expects and deserves better than that from us.
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You can reach Edward Booth at (707) 256-2213.