Issues in Public Works

INTRODUCTION

The Santa Barbara County Public Works Department employs approximately 350 people, and is composed of three major divisions: Solid Waste and Utilities, Water Resources, and Roads and Transportation. In July of 1994, three matters pertaining to this Department came to the attention of the Grand Jury.

* An allegation of an improper contractual connection between the Department and a former Director.

* A letter from several employees complaining about violations of Civil Service Rules and Affirmative Action Rules, cronyism, and other unfair promotional practices.

* The creation by this Department of a procedure for awarding service contracts in a new and improved manner.

The Grand Jury has investigated all three of these matters. The third issue, regarding procedures for service contracting, is still in the process of implementation by the Public Works Department.

OBJECTIVES

The primary objective of the Grand Jury's investigation was to determine if violations of County regulations regarding Civil Service Rules, Affirmative Action, and reasonable job promotional procedures had occurred and to make constructive recommendations for the prevention of such problems in the future. The secondary objective was the determination of the existence (or non-existence) of an improper contractual relationship between the Public Works Department and a former Director.

APPROACH

The Grand Jury conducted interviews with the Director, the Deputy Directors, management staff and employees of the Public Works Department, the Auditor-Controller, a union representative, the Affirmative Action Officer, and members of the Civil Service Commission. Documents relating to job promotional procedures and actual copies of a recent promotional examination and scoring system were reviewed. The County Counsel was consulted on legal matters.

OBSERVATIONS

Allegations of Contract Improprieties

The Grand Jury investigated the allegation of a contractual relationship for consulting services between a former Public Works Department Director and the present Department. No evidence of such a contract was found in the Department, and the Auditor-Controller was unable to locate any record of contracted funds being paid to a former Director. Therefore, this allegation was considered unsubstantiated, and not pursued further.

Hiring and Job Promotional Problems

Allegations from members of the Roads Division staff were outlined in a letter drafted by a union representative.1 Among these were:

1. Cronyism in hiring and job promotion.

2. Violations of Civil Service and Affirmative Action rules.

3. Inadequate job promotional examinations.

According to complainants and members of the Public Works Department administrative staff, a major factor in these complaints was the Maintenance Lead Worker Promotional examination and subsequent job promotion of certain employees to the four Lead Worker positions.

Recruitment for these positions was done in October, 1993. At that time, three employees had been occupying Maintenance Lead Worker positions on a temporary basis, some for two years or more. Reasons for the long delay in filling these jobs on a permanent basis included a change in Departmental Director, pending re-organization of all County departments, and provisional appointments involving positions higher than that of Maintenance Lead Worker. These created a downward "domino" effect.

The Grand Jury was advised by several witnesses that the Personnel Department no longer conducts promotional examinations. Members of the Civil Service Commission testified that they were largely unaware of this. Section 601, Rule 6 of the County's Civil Service Rules states that:

"The Personnel Director shall schedule examinations to fill vacancies in the classified service or to provide eligible lists for classes of positions where vacancies are likely to occur, and shall prepare or acquire, announce, and conduct such examinations as provided in these Rules. An examination may be scheduled and conducted as a promotional examination, as an open examination, or as both."2

Also in Rule 6, Section 606, is a discussion of examinations:

"Examinations shall be prepared under the direction of the Personnel Director who may request or employ persons of recognized attainments, other personnel agencies, personnel consultants or experts, officers or employees of the County or other public agencies, or such other assistance as may be deemed necessary, to assist in the preparation, conduct or grading of such examinations."3

Observation suggests that this rule is not being followed at present in many situations by either the Personnel or some County departments. The County's Personnel Department no longer administers promotional examinations, and many County departments initiate, write, and conduct interviews for internal personnel changes. It is apparently left to the option of the department to request assistance from the Personnel Department.

The Public Works Department had a testing process consisting of a screening questionnaire, written examination, and oral interview to rate the candidates prior to final selection by the Roads Maintenance Superintendent and the three Roads Maintenance Supervisors. Employees who participated in this process complained that qualifications for these jobs and standards for examinations were unclear.

After the above process, only one of the temporary Maintenance Lead Workers received a permanent promotion. Grievances and requests for Civil Service Commission investigations were subsequently filed. After a review of the selection process, the Public Works Director determined that errors had been made. He initiated a new selection process and reconsidered the top sixteen candidates for these four positions. In April of 1994, the revised testing was completed. A commissioner from the Affirmative Action Commission was a member of the interview board. The Director and Deputy Director of the Public Works Department then took an active role in the selection of the final appointees. In both the original and revised selection procedure, the same four employees were promoted.

The Civil Service Commission

The Civil Service Commission advises the Board of Supervisors on problems relating to personnel policy and administration, investigates matters concerning the administration of personnel, and hears appeals from workers in classified category jobs. County Civil Service Rules allow the appointment of workers to a higher job classification on a "temporary" basis for a period of one year. These workers are paid for the higher position during this time.

Although Civil Service Rules state what may or may not be allowed in terms of classified service, no remedy is provided in them for violations of such rules. It is therefore up to the individual departments and other involved county groups to solve problems involving violations on a case by case basis. In addition, various employee groups representing the County may have Memoranda Of Understanding (MOUs) which require arbitration for employee grievances. In some of these situations, the Civil Service Commission has no jurisdiction.

The Commission is also limited by Government Code Section 31101, which states that the "enabling" of the Commission to perform its functions does not limit the powers of the Board of Supervisors (per California Constitution Article XI, Section 1, Subdivision b) "..to provide for the number, compensation, tenure and appointment of employee."4

Affirmative Action

The Affirmative Action Officer conducted an independent investigation into allegations of employment discrimination in this matter, and found no violations.5 There is, however, a general lack of understanding about what determines a person's ethnic designation. In the situation under investigation, one of the promoted employees used an ethnic designation based on his family heritage which was not evident in his physical appearance nor his surname. According to the Affirmative Action Officer, it is the option of the employee to identify the ethnic group of his/her choice.

Internal Promotional Procedures and Information

Employees who were unhappy with the Department's promotional procedures cited such problems as the lack of available sample tests and unclear expectations for qualifying experience. There were rumors relating to cronyism, special favors, and unfair advantages given to some employees. The Grand Jury was unable to substantiate the specifics regarding these rumors, but was able to identify some of the "seeds" from which they grew. Many of the rumors came from uncertainty, apprehension, and perceptions based on partial or inaccurate knowledge of actual events.

The present Public Works Director took over a recently reorganized Department in late 1993. The process of County reorganization kept the uncertainty level very high for most County employees, including those at the highest levels. The Director testified that upon his appointment he found the department disorganized and demoralized. He stated that under his leadership things have stabilized and improved. For example, there are no employees working out of classification on "Temporary" status at present. The Department now uses a "Provisional" appointment status, which is time-limited and computer-monitored.

DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS

The Grand Jury was presented with a complex situation relating to employee problems in the Public Works Department which may extend to other County units. The clarification of employment status and the resolution of problems may concern the affected Department, the Civil Service Commission, the Personnel Department, the Affirmative Action Officer and Commission, the County Counsel, bargaining unit representatives, private consulting attorneys, and the Board of Supervisors. Misunderstandings, apparent favoritism, and genuine problems may consume a great deal of time of all the above groups and still result in unhappy employees.

The promotion of an employee under the Civil Service Rules should be a relatively straight forward matter. Competitive examinations designed to identify and promote the best candidates available to fill public employment positions are an ideal goal of Civil Service Rules. An inherent conflict exists between an employee selected in a non-competitive manner who believes himself capable of the job (and actually performs it) and those employees who feel that they are equally able and not given a chance to demonstrate that ability. When an employee is left in a temporary position, and receives satisfactory evaluations, it is understandable that this individual feels a right to permanent employment. Others who have not had what they consider a fair chance to compete for higher positions may feel denied of equal opportunity. The Civil Service system and the Personnel Department should be involved in the prevention of this problem.

Cutting the staff and budget of the Personnel Department has caused them to shift some responsibilities such as internal promotions to individual departments. The Grand Jury is concerned that this shift may cost more in terms of time spent on grievances.

In Santa Barbara County, the Personnel Department is only peripherally involved in promotional appointments. As this apparently can be left to individual Departments, a certain level of cronyism and favoritism is suspected by employees. This may be inherent in such situations, especially if good communication does not exist between employees and management.

The Civil Service Commission administers a set of rules which contain no remedies. Each case which comes to their attention may have violated one or more of these rules, but must be handled on a case by case basis with differing remedies applied in each situation. These cases may be time consuming for the many affected groups mentioned.

FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

FINDING #1: The Civil Service Rules regulating time limits for temporary assignments were violated by the Public Works Department. Complaints and grievances regarding violations when treated on a case by case basis are time consuming, costly and disruptive.

RECOMMENDATION #1a: Within the current calendar year, the Civil Service Commission should recommend amendments regarding employment practices regulations to include remedies for violations of rules regarding temporary assignments. The Commission should then advise the Board of Supervisors to implement these amendments.

RECOMMENDATION #1b: The Board of Supervisors should authorize amendments providing remedies in the Civil Service Rules as recommended by the Civil Service Commission.

FINDING #2: A clear description of job requirements, promotional standards, and examination contents were not available to employees in the Public Works Department during recent promotional testing.

RECOMMENDATION #2a: The Personnel Department and the Public Works Department should work together to create clearly written job requirements, define experience essential for those jobs, and set standards for provisional, temporary and permanent appointments.

RECOMMENDATION #2b: The Public Works Department should solicit the assistance of the Personnel Department in developing promotional examinations.

RECOMMENDATION #2c: The Public Works Department should provide sample questions for both written and oral promotional examinations to employees prior to testing.

REFERENCES

1. Letter from Public Works Department employees, July 5, 1994.

2. Santa Barbara County Civil Service Rules, p.27, rev. 11/84.

3. Santa Barbara County Civil Service Rules, p.28, rev. 11/83.

4. Memorandum from County Counsel's Office, January 6, 1995.

5. Letter from County Affirmative Action Officer, September 12, 1994.

AFFECTED AGENCIES (California Penal Code Section 933c requires that comments to Findings and Recommendations be made in writing within 60 days by all affected agencies except governing bodies which are allowed 90 days.)

1. Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors - response

2. Santa Barbara County Public Works Department- response

3. Santa Barbara County Personnel Department- response

4. Santa Barbara County Civil Service Commission- response