Kick Down

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.

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!

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze