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Uncertainty contributes to county employees' discontent

Published Oct. 2, 2005

Angry that he was denied the Personnel Advisory Board's ear to discuss a grievance he filed, Hernando County utilities employee Chris Soto sued the county, saying he wanted to force it to follow its own policy.

Citing county commissioners' mistrust of employees, former mining inspector Ron Aliff called it quits last month and went to work for Florida Crushed Stone, the company he used to monitor.

A spate of recent resignations, together with Soto's lawsuit, has highlighted employee discontent at the government center. But it wasn't until a majority of Building Division workers voted last week to boycott this week's county employee appreciation picnic that department directors and county commissioners began openly discussing the employee morale that some say has sunk to the lowest level in more than a decade.

"I think the employees have lost their sense of security. Their morale is damaged," said outgoing Human Resources director Yvonne Joseph, whose last day with the county is Nov. 14. "They are looking for the out."

Though the source of the problem is difficult to pinpoint, most department directors agree a big culprit is the uncertainty that has followed County Administrator Chuck Hetrick's sudden firing in August and the resignations of Deputy County Administrator Jennene Norman and Joseph shortly thereafter.

"Right now, the way things are, I don't think anyone knows what's going to happen," said Community Services director Pat Fagan.

Fagan acted as interim county administrator in 1985 before the commission hired Hetrick. He said there was tension back then, too, but not like the angst his employees feel now.

"I hate to see this going on," he said. "There are some open-ended questions that need answers, that need leadership."

Compounding the sudden loss of the county's top two administrators, department directors say, is a feeling among employees that commissioners don't know or care about their contributions to the organization.

When commissioners eliminated the bottom five salary ranges earlier this year, their intent was to give the county's lowest paid employees a living wage. But when commissioners failed to give other employees a corresponding boost, many got the impression they were being punished because they had more education or responsibility than the lowest paid workers, Joseph said.

"You look at the whole organization, you don't just look at a select few," Joseph said.

Joseph said she thought commissioners' policy prohibiting department directors from hiring employees at more than 5 percent above the minimum pay scale without their approval, together with their comments that the highest ranking _ a perfect PG1 _ should almost never appear on an employee's evaluation, eroded department directors' autonomy and purpose.

"The staff is here to be utilized by the board, to guide the board," Joseph said.

Though Fagan agreed with Joseph, he said he welcomes commissioners' interest in his department, but urged them to recognize the chain of command.

"The more commissioners know about our operations, the better off we are at budget time," Fagan said, adding he appreciated commissioners' tours of all departments earlier this year.

"As long as they don't direct my staff to do something without going through me. I think as a department manager I should be given the respect to discuss (employee issues) with the commissioner and the employee," Fagan said.

Commissioners' comments are piped through the government center building almost every Tuesday during commission meetings, and employees sometimes hear what they perceive as attacks on them or their bosses.

"They feel like they have lost their immunity from the politics of the board," said Development Department director Grant Tolbert, whose department has been scrutinized repeatedly by Commissioner Pat Novy. And with the imminent departure of the administrator and deputy administrator, the buffer between political commissioners and staff has eroded away, Tolbert said.

Purchasing director Jim Gantt agreed.

"If I know I'm doing the job I was hired to do, then I shouldn't have to worry about my job," he said.

Gantt said he thought, in light of the uncertain atmosphere in the county government center, that the county's employees could use a vote of confidence from the County Commission.

Emergency Management Officer David Casto got an informal stamp of approval from commissioners in June after they learned administrators were not satisfied with his performance after only six months on the job.

Though thankful for commissioners' support, Casto said the concept of county administrator as buffer benefits everyone.

"The county administrator needs to act as a filter and an interpreter. I don't report directly to the commission. I report to the administrator."

Casto said he hasn't experienced others' complaints about commissioners crossing the line from their role as policymakers to the employees role of implementing policy, but he offered his view on those roles.

"Commissioners shouldn't be looking at who gets a permit or which road should get paved tomorrow."

Four of the five commissioners also gave the Building Division a vote of confidence last winter after Commissioner Novy publicly accused several building inspectors of misleading the commission while under oath.

Tolbert said his employees decided to boycott the picnic after their request to file a grievance against Novy was denied by the county's legal and human resources directors. Tolbert said his employees were told they couldn't file the grievance because a commissioner was involved.

"As I said in my memo (to employees), this is a political environment and we have to live in it," Tolbert said. He wrote a memo urging employees to reconsider their position, and attached an e-mail message from Commissioners Bobbi Mills and Paul Sullivan that said the same.

While County Engineer Charles Mixson doesn't think the picnic should be used as a protest, he said that for the first time this year he won't make his employees go.

"I think (the uncertainty) will work itself out eventually. It has to, whether or not anything is done," Mixson said.

"County government is not going to shut down, but nobody is going to stick their neck out and start a new project," he said.

The question, however, isn't whether departments will delay proposed projects until the new county administrator is in place; it's whether departments will be able to keep their staff _ or even their directors _ until the new county administrator arrives.

"I've worked for about nine different administrators in my career," Tolbert said. "Every time the administrator changes, there's a 40 to 60 percent changeover of department heads."

Usually rank-and-file staff members are not drastically affected by administrative change, but never before in recent history has the county undergone the level of change it is experiencing now. Directors agree that the effect of staff changes are likely to be reflected in an employee attitude survey that will be conducted by University of South Florida professors. Results of the attitude survey, which is part of a structural audit of county government, will be available Nov. 15. The structural audit, which also has been blamed for the county's uneasy atmosphere, will be finished in January.

County Commission Chairman Ray Lossing knows what the survey is likely to reveal.

"Yes, I recognize there is a morale problem," Lossing said last week. But he thinks he may have a solution, at least to part of the problem.

"The commission, minus one, is extremely supportive of all county employees," Lossing said, referring to Novy's past comments and complaints to state officials about the Building Division.

His solution, which he will offer for the commission's review, is a new policy that would require commissioners to follow the same code of conduct that governs employees' actions and speech.

That code forbids employees from acting "in any manner that may discredit Hernando County Government, its public officials, fellow employees, or themselves. . . . Employees will direct and coordinate their efforts to establish and maintain the highest level of efficiency, morale and achievement.

"Employees found in violation of this policy may be subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination."

Lossing said he would like commissioners to abide by the same code, with some sort of censure, such as suspension.

Novy wants to know who will define "discredit."

"Truthfully, it sounds like a gag order to me," Novy said.

"I appreciate (Lossing) trying to find a solution, but we cannot prohibit communication between board members during a public meeting. If (commissioners) should disagree with department heads, it doesn't mean that they are wrong, or that the commissioners are wrong. It bears more research (into the issue in question)," Novy said.

As for employees' sagging morale, Novy said she hasn't been approached by any employees to discuss it.

Commissioner Mills said she doesn't think employees should interpret the departure of three top county officials as a warning of things to come. With the exception of Hetrick, who was fired, the individuals were probably making their plans for a while, "and then the circumstances presented themselves."

Mills also said she thinks the uncertain atmosphere will change once the new administrator is in place.

"I don't think it's as bad as everyone makes it seem _ I hope," she said.

Commissioner Sullivan agreed that things will smooth over.

"Whenever there's major change, there's a certain discomfort level. With that came our decision to do a study," Sullivan said, referring to the structural audit.

As for the source of some of the uncertainty, Sullivan blames Hetrick, the man he voted to fire.

"He failed to communicate to his department heads that this was not a huge crisis," Sullivan said, adding that he asked Hetrick to hold a department meeting shortly after he was fired.

Sullivan also offered assurances to the rest of the county's employees that their jobs are secure.

"If you're doing your job to the best of your ability," he said, "you have nothing to worry about."