Sunday, November 22, 2015

County Manager

Tuesday the Doña Ana County Commission will discuss its sole employee, County Manager Julia Brown. Following a closed-door discussion, the Commission will vote on whether or not to extend her contract, by how long, and under what conditions.

Like the Commissioners, but with less firsthand knowledge, I thought Ms. Brown was a very promising hire. Like the Commissioners, but with less firsthand knowledge, I've been somewhat disappointed. 

I'd guess that none of the Commissioners gave Brown high marks at evaluation time. I'd also guess they'll steer clear of either a two-year extension or termination (despite some sentiment for each), and extend her employment for a year that could become six months if there isn't perceptible progress on certain perceived shortcomings.

Before Brown was hired, there appeared to be a clique of county officials (named in earlier columns) that looked out too much for their own and each other's power and security and too little for the best interests of the County. Many county employees and ex-employees felt their fortunes depended on kissing butts and making no waves, not on competence or top-notch public service. It sure looked that way to me.

The County also needed to do some serious long-range planning that the previous manager might not have been too keen on getting into.

Brown brought a great resume, a greater smile, and all the right verbiage. 

HR weeded out the bulk of the candidates, based on commission criteria, to save the Commission time. That sounded good, but meant HR, with an inherent conflict-of-interest, could affect the process. (I'm told that at least one applicant who promised to get rid of the county attorney and HR director didn't make the cut. Perhaps he didn't meet the Commission's standards.)

Brown's performance cleaning up the place (and being seen to have done so, to reestablish trust among county employees) has been mixed, at best. Some people are gone who probably should be gone. On the other hand, after the Stewart trial broadened our knowledge of problems the Granados trial had revealed, Brown made an incredibly tone-deaf speech to employees. Many employees have wondered whether, as two juries found, management retaliates if one presses valid complaints. Brown told them that people had lied on the stand in Stewart, that she knew the trial's result was wrong, and that many employees make complaints when they're just about to be disciplined or fired for cause, to delay or avoid consequences of poor performance. But at the end she insists she wants employees to know she's 100% against retaliation and discrimination, and they can always come to her. 

Many viewed her hiring as folks in the Middle East greeted the Arab Spring. Some of the same people feel nothing has changed. Many feel that Detention Center Director Chis Barela and HR Director Debra Weir should be gone by now.

Brown works hard, I'm told; she has attacked projects like the Comprehensive Plan that make normal people's eyes glaze over but can prove important. Although her communication with the Commission leaves something to be desired, it's fair to say she's working on the issues, that fixing things would take anyone a long time, and that a year is a significant investment in her. She has such a promising resume that some folks feel it'd be a shame to give up on her prematurely.

One observer suggested that increasingly frequent “work sessions” symbolize micromanagement by the Commission and use up a lot of management's time, undermining Brown's ability to do her job.

A two-year extension would seem unwise; but if Brown stays, the Commission should clearly articulate its concerns and desires.
[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 22 November, 2015, and will appear today on KRWG-TV's website as well.   I invite comments and criticisms.]

[I don't have much to add to the column.  I did have one more example of what I've called tone-deafness, although this one would qualify as just plain dumb.  Brown's office announced an office-decorating contest among different departments of county government, with someone judging it and offering a prize, and said the County would allow each employee to work five hours on the decorating, paid.   A clever guy I know worked out the math, and at current rates and assuming every employee used his or her five-hour allotment, that'd cost the county upwards of $200,000, if I recall correctly.   This at a time when county government is experiencing a civil war over pay in the Sheriff's Office!   I called a County Commissioner, and this thing hadn't been run past them.  I called Brown's office, and her office confirmed the idiocy.  I left a message asking Brown herself or HR Director Debra Weir to call me back, hoping there was some sane explanation, or we'd all misread the memo.  Never heard any such thing, but the five-hours' paid allotment per employee offer was retracted.   
Never did hear back from Brown.  She may have decided I'm a trouble-maker.  I can never figure out how public officials get that impression!]
[Oh, and I did go take a look at the correspondence between the DA and Sheriff's Office, on the one hand, and Brown and County Attorney Norm Goodin, on the other, regarding documents about alleged bad conduct in the Detention Center.  The real joke was some of what former County Attorney John W. Caldwell had held back from investigators based on the attorney-client privilege.  Included an email in which a jail employee had sent an unsolicited complaint about misuse of County resources.  It's pretty basic that there's no attorney-client privilege there.  But Caldwell withheld it.  Anyway, the upshot was that the Judge ordered documents turned over to investigators but imposed on both sides a County-requested gag order so that they can't give us those documents or say publicly what's in them.]

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