Kick Down

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

The big drumbeat at City Hall, led by Mayor Laura Miller and echoed by The Dallas Morning News, is that the city's civil service system is corrupt. It protects dishonest, shiftless bums who need to be fired, according to our mayor.

Normally this is the kind of drumbeat to which I could cha-cha. Happily. It hits all my favorite notes--stupidity, cupidity, complicity. Did I leave one out? Skulduggery.

Any other day I'd be there, shirtless in my clogs and my tighty-whiteys, ready to play my head with wooden spoons and dance to the tune. Lucky for you there's a problem, so you won't be seeing that scene.

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.

I speak of this one big thing: the fact that it's all totally untrue. The line from the mayor and the Morning News about civil service giving bums their jobs back is one big lie. A whopper.

The whole thing about bad city employees getting their jobs back started in late 2003 when it was revealed that a few city code inspectors were writing people up for fake violations. That is, they gave homeowners tickets for rotten wood in their windows, but those homes had aluminum windows. Or they gave somebody a ticket for failing to tear down a rotten garage, but the person didn't have a garage.

The city conducted an investigation, and Kathy Davis, the director of code enforcement, disciplined 60 code inspectors, almost 40 percent of her total workforce, including 28 whom she fired.

Of those 28, 17 now have their jobs back. Miller says they got their jobs back because of "endless appeals" afforded them by the civil service system.

But they didn't get their jobs back from civil service. In fact, almost all of them got their jobs back from an alternative system designed specifically to get around civil service.

Very few got their original jobs back with back pay. Most were disciplined: They received demotions and no back pay for the year they were out of work. But they got their jobs back because the appeals judges found the real culprit to be Kathy Davis and her badly run, screwed-up-as-a-junkpile department.

All but one of these cases went to a system of "administrative law judges." If you get fired from a civil service job at the city and you want to appeal, you have a choice: You can take your case to a civil service trial board, made up of volunteers appointed by the city council. That's free.

Or you can take your case to an administrative law judge. That costs $400 a day, of which the city pays half. The law judges were established in the late 1980s to provide an alternative to the trial boards.

I did a Public Information Act demand for the "letters of decision" of the administrative law judges in the code inspector cases. Between the lines in these opinions, written by several judges, is a scathing portrait of managerial incompetence in Davis' department.

The judges found that Davis, after imposing a new quota system for activity, failed to tell her staff what the goal or purpose of the system was, how it would work, how they should work, on what basis they would be evaluated, what the consequences would be for failure.

Then Davis failed to set up a record-keeping system to build evidence in advance to back up discipline or firings. Then (in a panic over bad headlines, I would suggest) Davis fired people on an inconsistent basis. Then she reinstated supervisors but refused to reinstate employees who had committed the same offenses.

In a list, one judge wrote: "Supervisors were reinstated. No warning or communication of discipline criteria. Discipline was imposed retroactively."

Another judge wrote: "Employees were not put on notice regarding enforcement of accurate numbers. Employees involved in the same violation should receive similar discipline. Supervisor's reinstatement diminishes the severity of the citation."

Another judge, maybe trying to be more positive, gave Davis some hints about how to do things the right way: "Performance standards must be established as well as maintained in the workplace. Managerial oversight in the process is extremely important."

Yeah, DUH!

Let me tell you what Davis did when she took over four years ago. She imposed a quota system that was all about paper numbers--an activity count she could take to the city manager and to the city council to show what a busy bee she was. Revealed in the law judge decisions, however, is that nobody ever went to the employees and said: This is what we are actually trying to accomplish in the real world. It was all about cranking numbers, churning paper, kissing up, kicking down.

So the inspectors did what the signal from above seemed to be telling them: They cranked activity numbers. If an inspector stood on your porch and sorta warned you about your rotten garage with the weeds in the back and then wrote you a ticket, that went down as three operations: verbal warning garage, verbal warning weeds, citation issued. Busy morning!

Now, don't get me wrong, and don't get the law judges wrong: There were some really bad apples in there. Puffing up your numbers on the daily quota sheet is one thing. It's quite another to sit on a bar stool all afternoon writing rotten garage tickets for people who don't happen to have garages. There was some of that.

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.

"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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