2003-12-12 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular by Stuart W. Mirsky

A City Management Parable
The Rockaway Irregular by Stuart W. Mirsky A City Management Parable

If anyone wonders why it costs so much to run our city, why city government is so big and taxes have to be raised to keep City Hall afloat, allow me to offer this cautionary tale. Names and places have been left out to protect the innocent and avoid legal complications and I’ve also changed some of the facts and events slightly. But readers should feel free to consider this story a reasonable facsimile of the kinds of things that go on in city government.

Once upon a time, in a city agency not very far away, a senior manager lost a key employee. This employee was very smart, ambitious and a hard worker but she fell afoul of certain city employment restrictions and her enemies in the agency she worked for found out. They had become her enemies when she’d done extensive research into a false claim they’d made  and proved them wrong. They never forgave her for that and so used the information they discovered about her rule violation to successfully force her to resign. Unfortunately, this left her boss with a serious gap.

Because it’s so hard to hire staff in the city system (there’s a long delay for securing approval and budget authority) the lady’s manager decided to recruit internally for her replacement. One of his colleagues suggested one of her own employees who, she said, was smart, capable but who could not advance in her current job because of organizational limitations. The manager was desperate for a speedy replacement and so took his colleague’s recommendation at face value. An add-zed bonus was that the recommended candidate was an African-American woman; her selection would further enhance the manager’s effort to give opportunities to minorities. So the selection was made, the processing begun... and then a long wait ensued as the manager waited... and waited... for City Hall approval. After a good six months the new employee finally joined his staff.

Briefing his new senior staffer, the manager laid out her responsibilities including managing the organization’s budget. He gave her the same range of responsibilities and span of control her predecessor had had when she was in that same position. However, the new employee had other ideas. It turned out she did not have much interest in budgets though she was very enamored of her new private office and the number of staff reporting to her, which she spent an inordinate amount of time listing on organizational charts she was constantly revising.

When it came to monitoring the budget, planning expenditures, actually tracking and reporting on them, etc., however, she wasn’t there. The reports she issued were invariably late and/or wrong. Whenever budgeting time came round, she managed to be on vacation or sick. Once she even took a vacation without her manager’s approval during the budget period, leaving the manager to scramble to do the budgeting himself with his office manager.

Things only got worse. The new senior staffer constantly ducked the manager’s questions and assignments while other people in the office began coming to him to complain that she was making a high salary but doing nothing for it. Morale was plummeting. Worse, this lady had issued parking permits to herself and others she deemed her friends, though this was not appropriate practice. She also refused to sign off on the "tasks and standards" used by the agency to evaluate staff performance. Without a signed document, the manager was unable to evaluate her and thus hold her accountable. Things came to a head one day when the manager learned that the new employee planned to take a three month leave of absence for medical reasons which she had scheduled, once again, for the budgeting season! She had very little accumulated time, since she used whatever she earned for vacations almost as quickly as she earned it, so it was to be a formal leave without pay.

Her manager advised her that he would certainly not prevent her from taking documented medical leave, however he expected her to finally sign her "tasks and standards" before she left. The employee then studiously avoided this, day after day (while her manager was busy with other things... there were always other things demanding this manager’s attention) until, on the day of her impending departure, he insisted she sign those documents before leaving. As it happened, she left early that day, so when the manager went down to her office before the close of business, he found she’d already gone... without signing the forms!

In her absence the manager turned to his office manager, also an African-American woman who was one of his main supports. This lady was disciplined, dedicated, smart, loyal, detail-oriented, etc, etc. When work got too heavy in the office, she used to take it home, working on her own computer in the evenings and weekends. She rarely got paid overtime for any of this. While the troublesome employee was away, this lady took over and performed all of the critical budget functions superbly, while still doing her own work! The senior manager said to himself, "this lady is doing the job the other one wasn’t, so why not give the job, and a raise, to her?" When the other employee returned, she was informed that her old job now belonged to this other lady, but that a new job was available to her, at exactly the same salary and in the same managerial title. She didn’t like that very much because it meant she’d lose her private office, her place on the org chart and the bulk of the staff that had previously been reporting to her. After much argument, she finally acquiesced. However, one thing still remained. She had to sign off on new "tasks and standards". This she did not want to do. She went above her senior manager’s head. Frustrated and angered by this never-ending obstructionism, her boss finally demoted her to her prior, lower, title and dropped her salary commensurate with that. He did this with the full involvement and support of his agency’s personnel department and his own superior. `The lady sued her boss and the city, alleging discrimination against her for race, gender, age, etc. She sued for $25 million. Her boss conferred with the city’s attorneys and provided them with full documentation of all that had happened and noted that there could not have been racial discrimination since: 1) there were more minorities in higher titles under his administration than prior to his arrival; 2) he had hired her in the first place with full knowledge of her minority status; and 3) the lady who replaced her was also a black woman. Her replacement was also about the same age as she was, so the allegation of age discrimination was clearly absurd, too. Moreover, all three people who had held the position in question had been women.

Well, the years dragged on and managements changed. And the lady who had been demoted secured a settlement from the city! That’s right. As part of the settlement, she was given a promotion back to a managerial title, received a substantial increase on her old salary, a lump sum for "back pay" and a substantial payment for damages! All for a case she couldn’t have won on the merits. And today? That lady is sitting in an office doing very little but collecting the higher pay she "won". Other staff tiptoe around her, afraid to cross her because of her success in her case. Still others look to her as a role model for how city employees should conduct themselves. So much for work ethics and doing the right thing.

It’s because of things like this that city managers can’t operate effectively and end up overpaying non-performing staff to sit in offices doing nothing, while over-hiring to compensate for the presence of such people on the payrolls. Oh, and it turned out that the manager who had first recommended this lady had been less than forthright. It seems this lady had been a problem in her unit, too, and she wanted to ease her out. So if anyone ever asks you why city employment is so bloated, you can tell them this story... or thousands of others just like it! rockirreg@aol.com.


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