Saturday, October 20, 2012

Scott swings vicious slingblade at DEP’s Tampa Office

In my 50-plus years of being a working bloke just trying to keep grits on the table, I have never heard of anything like what happened in Tampa this week at DEP’s southwest district office.
Everyone knows about the deep recession we’re in and the impact it has had on us all.  In the private sector, jobs have been lost by the millions, incomes have been cut, businesses have been lost, entire industries have had to shrink and the country itself is on the economic ropes.

I don’t know anyone who believes that government should hold some kind of exception to the need to reduce its cost and size to reflect the reduced demand for public services.  So when there is a quest to reduce the size and cost of the regulatory functions of the water management districts and Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, most reasonable people, rightly, would not object.
It is only when we see that quest being executed in ways that are not reasonable or appropriate that we need to stand up.  My last post was out of concern that the water management districts have been cut too deeply.  Today’s is about the vicious and hurtful way Scott and his minions carried out the firing of 25 hapless staffers at DEP’s Tampa office this week.

It was not the fact that Scott determined the staff and budgets of DEP’s district offices needed to be reduced; it’s how they did it.  Herding approximately 150 staffers into a hastily called and otherwise unannounced 15-minute meeting, and telling them all to go back to their offices and pack their personal belongings because 25 of them were going to be fired the next day?  What in the world are they smoking in T-Town? 

Whoever came up with this strategy ought to be tarred and feathered and rode the length of Apalachee Parkway on a rail.
I hear the whole thing went down something like this.  After Scott successfully purchased the governor’s seat for over $70 million of his own dollars, he determined all of state government should be structured such that no manager should have responsibility for less than seven people.  This was the stricture Herschel Vinyard told his henchman, Jeff Littlejohn, to apply as he restructured the department’s regional district offices.  So Littlejohn, with Vinyard’s obvious blessing, hatched a plan for realigning supervisory roles and responsibilities starting at the Tampa district office and getting rid of 39 employees of that office’s 150 or so employees.  (Note: Since 14 of those positions were unfilled, the number of on-staff employees to be fired was actually 25.)

Never mind that none of these Tallahassee geniuses ever had any experience at managing a governmental regulatory agency.  The plan was to cross-train everybody so anyone could do anyone else’s job.  Sounds reasonable until one begins to realize just how technical and complex these jobs can be. 
History suggests trying to make the offices more efficient in this way will only insure unfortunate businesses and industries having to get permits will have to deal with staffers who are not familiar with all they need to be in order to do their job competently.  This makes for confusion, misdirection, and added expense for the applicant.  We know this because, as some might recall, it was tried back in the 1980’s.  But never mind any of that.

Here’s what I’m hearing took place.  Over the last few weeks and months, there were a series of emails and verbal messages to the staff intended to prepare them for what everyone pretty much expected anyway, i.e., a reasonable realignment and restructuring but little or no direct references to any reduction in force.  It was signaled all would be done by November 1.
Then last Tuesday, October 16, at 5:27 p.m., Tampa district director Mary Yeargan, announced to the general staff population via email that a meeting would be held the next morning at 9:00 a.m.  All field personnel were called in and everyone was mandated to be there. 

The meeting was called on such short notice that an administrative hearing which had been scheduled for months had to be canceled (or delayed or moved?) so all the district’s employees could be seated in the only auditorium large enough to hold them all.  And for the same reasons, the meeting was rushed.
During that 15 minute meeting, 150 or so employees, many of whom were career people who had worked in public service for decades, were told they were to go back to their offices, clear out all their personal belongings, put it into a box and … apparently … just go and stick it in a corner somewhere, and take it home with them after work. Unbelievably, they were expected to go back to work for the rest of the day and do their jobs as if all was normal.

They were also told that when they came back in the next morning, Thursday, 25 of them would be fired. 
This meeting occurred at 9:00 a.m. Wednesday morning.  One can only imagine how an organizational staff “family” of some 150 persons must have felt that night not knowing who, “if not me,” would be without jobs and incomes the next day.

Then on Thursday morning after the 25 expulsions, the remaining survivors, presumably, were to go back to their cars, retrieve the box of personal belongings they had removed the day before, forget what had just happened and become much more efficient model employees of Rick Scott, Herschel Vinyard, and Jeff Littlejohn’s new order of good Florida government.
When Thursday morning arrived, I’ve heard the procedure went something like this.  Everyone went to their “offices,” actually just cubicles in most cases, and waited to be tapped on the shoulder.  The newly named managers grimly strolled about asking the unfortunates to follow them to a real office (with four walls) where, one by one, 25 of them were given a folder of information, about who-knows-what, and reminded that:

-        They were fired

-        They could not return to their cubicles, computers, etc.

-        They had to leave immediately

-        They could not stop to say good bye to anyone

-        They would be escorted out the front door

-        Arrangements would be made for them to come back into the office at night to pack up any remaining personal items.

-         Officers would be on site to keep matters under control
There were reports of both men and women crying in the halls; some because they had just received the word … some because they had just given the word.

The outrageous, incompetent, viciousness with which this near-fascist approach to management of real human beings in an American workplace simply cannot be ignored by other responsible, elected leaders … if there are any around.  Someone with authority (other than some retired blogger guy) has to speak up for the thousands of public employees who are being relentlessly attacked by the persons responsible for it all, i.e., Rick Scott, his henchmen Herschel Vinyard, Jeff Littlejohn, and others. Every one of them needs to be held personally accountable somehow for how they are treating real human beings this way.  Even animals housed at Hernando County’s animal services are treated better than the way Herschel Vinyard treated the DEP staff in Tampa this week.  There, hapless discarded animals simply get euthanized.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Fear and Loathing in Florida’s Water Management Districts

There’s a continuing swirl of rumors about the number of layoffs looming at SWFWMD.  The rumor mill has had the number for some time now at 60 to 70 employees, mostly from the area known as administrative services.  Despite claims by administrator, Blake Guillory, that the real number will be closer to “only” 30, the angst and worry by the staff continues and there’s good reason why. They simply aren’t being told anything.
Apparently, the district’s current protocol is to let individual managers know who’s going to get the boot in their area only and not the havoc that’s happening in the department next door.  Staff members talk about how the only way they know what’s happening is by the grapevine or by calling someone’s extension only to be told they’ve been “disappeared.”
(Sorry. I should have referred to department as “bureau” which is what all water management districts now are required to label certain sections of their respective staffs.  This is all part of Tallahassee’s reformation of water management districts to insure they walk, talk and look like Tallahassee state agencies.  Our ersatz governor has embarked upon this quest for no apparent good reason except perhaps because someone told him at a briefing one time that all government in Florida needs to walk, talk and look like it does in Tallahassee because it’ll somehow create new jobs and make government more efficient.  Don’t know this for a fact but it sounds like something from the former chair of his transition team regulatory reform subcommittee who wields vast knowledge of all things governmental because he’s a lawyer.)
Of course there’s also Guillory’s Standard Format Tentative Budget dated August 16, 2012, for the district’s 2012-13 fiscal year (Sandspur obtained a PDF copy, apparently intended as a briefing document for legislative staff but no link at SWFWMD could be found).  A graphic on page 10 of the document clearly indicates his intention is to reduce the staff from the current targeted 2011-12 level of 764 “FTEs” to 617.  That’s a reduction of 147 employees, not 30 as Guillory claims, and it’s a lot more than the 60-70 swirling around in the district’s staff breakroom every day.
I don’t know the reasons for these discrepancies.  I just know they exist, that they shouldn’t, and that the management staff of the district has handled a perhaps justifiably appropriate reduction of staff in an inexcusably unprofessional, insensitive, and irrational manner.  But it’s not just management incompetence at the district’s executive level. 
This terrible situation can and should be laid directly at the feet of a totally insensitive, uninformed and completely ill-equipped board of governors.  Why in the world don’t the executive director and the board chair hold face to face staff briefings district-wide? Simply lay out the plan, offer up why they are doing what they’re doing, and make a good faith effort to be straight up with their staff, without platitudes like “getting the water right” and “returning to core mission” that demean the professionalism and intelligence of a dedicated staff.   
The real human beings that work at SWFWMD, and at all of the water management districts, are not ill-behaved immature work animals who must be herded and treated as unfeeling dumb beasts. They’re due respect and consideration for the position in which they find themselves.  In many instances, they have dedicated their careers and lives to providing the public of Florida a tremendously important service.  To deny them this respect violates every management principle in the book and reflects a level of cold insensitivity that cannot be justified or rationalized, politically, economically, or otherwise.
Sadly, SWFWMD has not been the only perpetrator of these absurdities. Each of the other four districts has similar stories, as well as DEP.   Fear and intimidation through control of information is the new protocol for Florida government.
Is it because the plan is being dictated by the governor’s Tallahassee minions who are deeply embroiled in remaking state government into a service for special interests? Is it because these farcical leaders of the current rid-us-of-all-things-governmental mantra can’t even articulate a rational defense for issuing a mitigation bank permit that is fraught with special interest bennies, like the Highlands Ranch Mitigation permit?  Is it because they are brazenly attempting to cleanse Florida’s environment regulatory agencies of anything smacking of technical talent and science-based resource management capability?  Are they doing this because the new natural resource management protocol is to manage by intimidation, fear and political influence?
Sure looks like it.
Use of the term, “justifiably” is not to say that what this governor is doing to decimate the capabilities of the most strategically needed government agencies of this state is in any way appropriate.  It is simply to recognize that the impact of a global recession upon this country has had a significant effect upon the need for governmental services and a reasonable response is to reduce the presence of government at every point where that need has declined.
The problem is that the appropriate level to which water management district staffs and services should have been reduced has been drastically exceeded, despite the claims by Herschel Vinyard and the nodding heads of the water management district governing boards that all is well.  The party line they incessantly spew is that they are, for the first time in Florida’s history, “getting the water right.”  What a load of propagandistic crap.  The State of Florida is going to be paying the price for such irresponsible nonsense for a very long time in a lot of different ways.
The result of this delirium will hang like the darkest of clouds over the morale and technical capabilities of the state’s five water management districts for years, if not permanently.  The state’s much-needed construct for water resource management, where the objective was always wherever possible to insure decisions were science-based and in the public interest, is already suffering. The game has clearly become a strategy of management by intimidation, fear and political influence.
JD Alexander, the not-so-behind-the-scenes real leader of the senate for the last few years, was the poster child for how to achieve this.  Alexander, along with cowboy-boot-wearing CEO Scott and DEP’s Herschel Vinyard of similar pointy-toed footwear, have already made the incredibly dumb decision over the last two legislative sessions to cut SWFWMD’s budget well into the bone. Tea baggers surely rejoiced, but the reality is that Scott and Alexander shot Alexander’s home county squarely in the gluteus maximus by doing so.
The cuts and revenue limitations they levied upon SWFWMD were so harsh, even Polk County commissioners were begging Alexander not to do it because the county is literally banking upon the property-tax payers of the district’s 16 counties to pay for its much-needed new county-wide water supply system.
Nevertheless, SWFWMD’s ambassadors-of-all-things-hunky-dory are smiling sweetly and saying not to worry because the legislature in 2012 gave the district the option of levying more property taxes should more dollars be needed for the project.
Fat chance, right?
Truth is, it was a tea bagger pandering frenzy led by Scott, Alexander and an army of lobbyists owned by special interests to cut the districts not only in staff and funding but in every other way they can find.  They are not stopping at what’s prudent.  It is a frenzy of destruction and punishment for one of the Florida’s most important functions.  Florida, a state of tremendous natural diversity and ecological sensitivity, stands to lose the very characteristics that make it one of the most unique and desirable places in the world to work, live and play.  We are witnessing the release of forces that could affect the future of this state in all respects for a very long time, and it isn’t good.