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During a special City Council meeting on Aug. 31, City staff reported on their four-month-long study to reorganize and restructure City departments. The massive project, undertaken at the request of City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz in response to the lack of a state budget, promised no wholesale job cuts but offered new job titles and some changed duties for dozens of City employees.
The most significant changes will come to the Public Works Department, which will merge with the Utilities Department to form a new Public Works Agency. The Utilities Department was a part of the Public Works Department until the two split about seven years ago. The new recombined agency will be different from the previous united department however, said City Chief Financial Officer Martin Lyons, who spearheaded the study and presented staff’s report to Council.
Mr. Lyons said that “unlike the previous Public Works Department of more than seven years ago, this one has different bureaus in it and different functionality.” As an example, Mr. Lyons said parts of the Parks and Recreation Division moved to Public Works during the seven- year period when Utilities was separated out.
The new Public Works Agency will have four “bureaus:” Utilities, Maintenance, Capital Improvement Projects (CIP) and Environmental Services.
The Utilities Bureau will focus entirely on water production and the water plant. Water delivery and disposal, however, are a different story. Pipes and sewers will be split between two of the other bureaus. The Maintenance Bureau will cover maintenance and repair – “everything in our right-of-way,” said Mr. Lyons. The Maintenance Bureau chief will be “responsible and accountable for all our rights-of- ways,” including snow removal, said Mr. Lyons.
Large replacement projects, including not only water-sewer but also all other parks, transportation and streets capital projects, will be consolidated within the CIP bureau. The City has long has “an appetite beyond our means with capital [improvements],” said Mr. Lyons. A single capital bureau chief will have a better understanding of resources available and spread them among transportation – multimodal and community wide – and parks projects. “Having a parks plan is incredibly important,” said Mr. Lyons.
“Specific engineers [will be assigned] to all of those areas. [The City will] designate staff to be working on specific areas, develop expertise further,” Mr. Lyons said.
The fourth bureau – Environmental Services – will oversee recycling programs, greenways and forestry.
Removed from public works are fleet services and City building maintenance, which will shift to the administrative services department. Mr. Lyons said that all City departments rely on those services, so they should be separated to place all departments on an equal footing.
The changes will be implemented over the coming months with a goal of complete transition by year-end. Mr. Lyons will serve as interim Public Works Agency director until a new director has been hired. Suzette Robinson, the City’s previous Director of Public Works, was separated from the City in early August.
Bureau chiefs will be identified and hired, with the City looking internally first and broadening the search outside the City if an appropriate candidate cannot be found among current staff, said Mr. Lyons.
Both Mr. Bobkiewicz and Mr. Lyons said the City will see little, if any, cost-savings from these changes. “These changes will, in some cases, save money, but in most cases will allow the City to get more and better services with existing resources,” said Mr. Bobkiewicz, speaking about the entire reorganization.
“The reorganization was not meant to be a budget-cutting exercise and that’s where we still are,” said Mr. Lyons. “Right now we are looking at reorganization and putting people into different bureaus. But the purpose for doing that is, if we need to look at changes in the total resources we have, we don’t want to do it now. We want to be ready in case the State makes changes that we cannot handle as a community.”
City Council praised the report and the coming changes. Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said her main concern was the result would be a City so perfect the City Manager might leave to find greater challenges elsewhere. “It raises a serious question for me,” she said, “and that is when Ald. [Mark] Tendam [6th Ward] and I went to California to interview the City of Santa Paula [where Mr. Bobkiewicz previously served as city manager], we said to these people, ‘Why are you so encouraging for Mr. Bobkiewicz to move up and onward?’ and they said, ‘Because we’re so excited, he left us so prepared to carry on without him… It’s just worrying me that we’re getting things so perfect that you’re going to leave.”
Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, was similarly effusive in her praise of the reorganization. “I think a few months ago I probably wouldn’t have expected it to be as significant as it is. … It feels as if, when you get your first iPhone, oh, that’s intuitive, this is how it should work. … It’s much clearer for me now. Practical common sense.” While the report did not explain where solid waste contracts and other contracts would be handled, she said she expected answers to those questions to be provided over the coming months.
Some City staff members have expressed concern about the transition, fearing job cuts and a disproportionate impact of those cuts on the black community.No cuts are currently projected, but new bosses and new ideas are coming.
Mr. Lyons, though, described an inclusive analysis leading to his report and said everyone had a seat at the table. The City handed out old fashioned 3” by 5” index cards to employees and encouraged them to submit their ideas for change. Many ideas were incorporated into the larger plan, he said.
One example was a request for more and better training. The sour economy of 2008-11 resulted in deep cuts, and one category sliced to the bone was training. Mr. Lyons said training would be coming back.
Another complaint emerged as an unintended consequence of the advent of the City’s 311 centralized request for service system. “We were being too responsive and not programmatic enough,” said Mr. Lyons. Employees were “dropping whatever they were doing and just 311-ing.” Employees will now be assigned their tasks and given the resources to complete those tasks, he said.
But some reluctance among employees remains. “Not everybody’s idea ended up on the board. We made an extra effort to show we were listening,” said Mr. Lyons. When the City presented the final report to City employees several days before it came to Council, Mr. Lyons said, “I’d say about half of the room had nodding heads the right way, and that’s all we could hope for.”