Kick Down

A silly boss--not civil service--is the problem with the city's code department

That's why some of the appellants got zip. It's also why most of the people who got their jobs back also took tough licks from the law judges. Many were demoted; almost none got back pay; almost all were required to take some kind of training. It's clear the law judges don't think even fairly egregious managerial failings exonerate dishonesty.

"Employee should not consider this a vindication regarding his actions," one judge wrote. "What he did was wrong, but in determining the appropriate penalty, the above factors and other evidence presented were weighed."

Scott Newland, a union representative from the North Texas Association of Public Employees, said Davis' mistakes were all failures of direction: "They didn't define what they wanted. They didn't define how to get where they were going. And they didn't define what would happen if errors were made.

Several administrative law judges found that code enforcement Director Kathy Davis, below, failed to tell her staff what the goals were for a new quota-based code enforcement system.
Mark Graham
Several administrative law judges found that code enforcement Director Kathy Davis, below, failed to tell her staff what the goals were for a new quota-based code enforcement system.

"The new director instituted a benchmark or quota of 400 activities a month and never said what an activity was. She left everybody to their own devices, and everybody interpreted it differently."

Davis, by the way, refused to speak to me. I explained to her spokesman in some detail that I was gleaning a very negative picture of her management practices from the law judge decisions, and I said I thought the head of a major city department involved in a controversy ought to be able to defend herself in an interview with a reporter. But he said she wasn't talking to me, no matter what I said. I told him I would be forced to interpret her refusal as a strong indication she might be a bluck-bluck-bluck wing-flapping chicken. He disagreed with my interpretation.

But that's all about how Kathy Davis created this mess in the first place. The larger point, in terms of what the mayor has been saying, is that the people who did get their jobs back did not get them back from the civil service trial boards.

In fact, from January 1, 1999, to the present, 103 city employees from all departments, not just code compliance, have appealed their dismissals, according to numbers provided to me by the city's Department of Civil Service. Of those 103 cases, 70 were upheld completely. Whatever the city said, it stuck. So in 68 percent of those cases, the appeal was denied. Of those 103 cases, two-thirds were heard by trial boards and one-third by administrative law judges.

But here's the biggie. Here's the one that puts the foot in the mayor's mouth. Of the cases heard by civil service trial boards, 79.1 percent were upheld. The trial boards sided with the city and against the employee in four out of five cases.

The law judges, on the other hand, overturned or modified half of the cases they heard--two and a half times the rate of the civil service boards. So when the cases went before lawyers, instead of volunteer citizens, the city did much more poorly.

And no wonder. The findings in the code enforcement cases argue that the city can't manage its way out of a wet paper bag. Even when you're firing people... especially when you're firing people, you need to have some idea what you're doing.

Mayor Miller wouldn't talk to me, either. I did call. But she and I have discussed this before, and I do know this: Months ago when the mayor first started stirring the pot on civil service, city council member Dr. Elba Garcia requested a set of data to enable her to analyze the issue.

Garcia saw right away that the mayor was wrong. Civil service was not the problem. She provided the mayor with her findings. I know she did, because I spoke with both of them about it at the time.

Since then, the mayor has found it politically expedient to keep beating up on city employees, painting them as bums, idiots and slackers who can't be fired because of civil service, in spite of having seen numbers showing irrefutably that it's not true. And then she has her hallelujah chorus behind her in the Morning News, its editorial page and columnists.

You have to wonder sometimes. Is the truth just totally irrelevant? Is it all Kabuki theater? Employees (pointing dramatically) BAD! Madam Mayor Queen, GOOD!

Maybe it's better TV that way. I thought in the recent debate over adopting a strong-mayor system, maybe the mayor would have wanted to discuss what's really wrong with the city manager system. Like, it doesn't manage. But what do I know? Less and less, apparently.

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