The Place to Work — or Not Work — is City Hall, According to the Auditor

The selling point for a professional “city manager” system of city government — we’ve got one of the biggest ones in the country here in Dallas — is that everything will be run in a professional or “businesslike” fashion, not all loosey-goosey and a mess like it would be if an elected mayor were in charge.

OK. Fine. If the city were run by a mayor we elected to office every four years, would the following things be true?

One. According to a report just released by City Auditor Craig D. Kinton,  the city wrote 41,518 paychecks last year — almost a quarter of all the checks written — on pay records that bore no sign of having been examined or approved by the supervisors required by city policy to examine and approve them. In all, the city paid out $60.3 million in compensation for which there was no properly authorized approval, about 20 percent of the overall payroll.

Maybe everybody was honest and did the work they were supposed to do but somehow there was a computer glitch. Maybe a bunch of people were not honest and had friends clock them in because they had learned from experience that nobody checks up much. Maybe the city is sending checks to dead people.

Those are all reasons why large organizations have control mechanisms to make sure checks are not written for work not done. Dallas, indeed, has such policies. It just doesn’t follow them about 24 percent of the time.

Two, another problem: Of the balance of the paychecks that do show an approval, more than three-quarters of those examined by the auditor had a kind of blanket over-write approval by the head check-writer instead of the required approval by a supervisor. The district’s software doesn’t keep track of whether those blanket approval checks were approved the right way first, by the supervisor.

But guess. Why would you need the over-write approvals if you already had the right approvals? This is a problem addressed in Harvard School of Business Seminars on Compensation Management under the rubric, “Hey, wait a minute, how the F do we even know if anybody’s showing up?” Oh, I made that up, didn’t I? But you catch my drift.

Three: Wow, no kidding. The audit found 77 city employees who never had approved records to show they were present on the job. Not just that their checks were missing the approvals once in a while. In the 26 pay periods tested by the auditor (one year of pay, paid every two weeks), those 77 had not one approved pay record. No approvals whatsoever. None. Not a jot nor a tittle.

I think those are the ones they always refer me to when I have a question.

The auditor’s report skims the surface: It doesn’t say, for example, if it looked for or found any suspicious patterns in the undocumented pay checks, like the checks all seem to be sent to the same postal box in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Probably not. Don’t worry.

But, Four: Suuhlick! The auditor found that controls over paid leave were very loose, but in some miraculous cases the district’s compensation software did catch people pulling little fast ones on paid leave, like taking vacation they did not have coming. In some cases, employees put in for vacation and then took the days, only to find that the software had figured out they didn’t actually have the vacation time coming, so the software changed it to “leave without pay,” and they weren’t paid. Right away.

In a lot of businesses, leave without pay is equivalent to, “Yeah, and don’t bother coming back, either.” Not at City Hall. It’s just leave without pay. Or supposed to be. But there’s a problem. Surprise surprise.

The auditor found multiple instances in which those supervisors who were always forgetting to even look over their staff’s regular time sheets did go diligently to Human Resources to tell them, “Oh, my employee didn’t mean to request that time off as vacation time. No, that was actually sick leave.” So it was changed retroactively. So they were paid anyway.

You. Me. We definitely know if we’re going on vacation or going to the hospital. At City Hall there’s a confusion. A lot of confusion.

Five: And we’re not talking about all line-level employees, either. In one department, four un-named persons at the top — whose names we could sleuth out pretty easy but we won’t because of our extreme fairness — were taking all kinds of time off and not recording any of it as time off.

Let me ask you a question. How do you figure the auditor finds out about a thing like that? If there is no record, there is no record. The boss is the boss, so the boss can’t get caught.

I think the only way you get caught is that you refuse to change your employee’s unearned vacation time to sick time, so your employee steps down the corridor with his cellphone and drops a dime on you with the auditor. Oh yeah, Mr. Bigshot? Two can play at that game. So we see where this kind of business practice leads.

Here’s what I think the truth is about the city manager system. The city manager, through no real fault of his or her own, spends 74.5 percent of the time putting out fires and kissing City Council members asses, another 24.5 percent carrying water for fat cats. That leaves 1 percent for pursuing coherent goals and installing and implementing rational practices.

If we had a CEO who was the CEO, an elected mayor, she could at least tell council members to put out their own fires and tell the fat cats to get in line.

By the way, the city manager agreed with all of the auditor’s recommendations but said he might need some new software to do it. You know what new software means at City Hall, right? Ouch!

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