Council off and running for 2003

Asked about their work in 1997, city employees complained about poor communication, inconsistent application of policies and a lack of direction.

A consultant recommended a number of remedies. And even though most of those recommendations have been implemented, some of the problems cited in 1997 study may have resurfaced or remain, suggesting to some that the process might bear repeating.

“I think there are a lot of similarities between where we are today and where we were then,” said City Council member Norm Wooldridge. “There are a lot of concerns being expressed about the efficiency of the staff, and my perception is that employee morale is as low as it has ever been.”

The council will devote a one-hour workshop session beginning at 6 p.m. tonight to what it calls an “organizational study discussion.” The stated objective is to review the 1997 study and use that as a framework to address the status of internal city management today.

“This document is a tool sitting there for us to use, but we have not done that,” Councilman Bill Knobloch said. “We want to review the document in public so that the citizens know what is in it, and negotiate further improvements in our management structure.”

Knobloch said he had reviewed the document extensively, but declined to specify areas where he thought improvement could be made.

“Until the council comes to a consensus, it would be inappropriate and premature for me to comment on specifics,” he said.

City Administrator Lynn Nordby, the apparent target of some behind-the-scenes grumbling by council members during budgeting, said he will begin the workshop with a presentation on the 1997 report and the steps taken since to address the issues raised.

One major change made as a result of the report is the council’s practice of articulating its annual objectives.

“After the report came out, the council had three retreats in which they wrestled with how to come up with goals and objectives,” Nordby said. “Every year since then, they have never failed to set them, generally in late summer and early fall, and we have tried to do an annual recap with everything we have done towards meeting them.”

The report from consultant Sandra Davis was based on interviews with some 80 percent of the city’s employees, including staff, directors and elected officials.

Based on that self-examination, Davis reported problems with morale, internal accountability, lack of leadership, lack of internal communication and inconsistent employee policies.

Perhaps the most significant improvement in those regards, Nordby said, was moving into a new city hall building in 2000. That brought under one roof employees that had been lodged in the old building – what is now the police station – as well as in offices scattered throughout Winslow and as far as Rolling Bay.

“Departments were physically separated from others and within themselves,” Nordby said, noting that even when a department was in one building, workers were frequently on different floors.

That physical separation led to an unhealthy degree of independence, Nordby said. Different departments and different areas had different practices on matters like breaks, lunch periods and socializing, leading to employee perceptions of unfairness.

Simply bringing everyone together has gone a long way towards alleviating that problem, he said.

Mayor Darlene Kordonowy did some confidential polling of city employees early in 2002. While she found significant improvements in employee perception over 1997, particularly in areas of internal communications and what she called “a sense of overall well-being in the organization,” some problems remained.

“I heard that employees are looking for more consistency, particularly in the way customer service is delivered,” she said. “Some employees did not feel that permit applicants were all being treated the same way, and some were uncomfortable with the practice of charging hourly fees.”

One recommendation in the 1997 report was to establish objective performance standards for department heads, then measure achievements at intervals. Nordby said that has proved elusive in practice.

“We have tried to measure effectiveness through things like dollars spent or staff hours per unit of output, but when we have presented that to past councils they haven’t found it particularly useful,” he said. “And there are a lot of outside factors that influence what you can get done.

“While we haven’t been able to quantify things and attach scores, we do come up with evaluations during employee reviews,” he said, and those reviews have made a difference.

“Not to beat a dead horse, but one reason Bill Bryan is no longer public works director involves the way he ran that department,” Nordby said, referring to a long-time department head who was fired by Mayor Dwight Sutton.

One technique that can be successful, Nordby said, is what he calls “benchmarking” – finding another city that does something especially well, then studying how and why they do it.

Both Nordby and Wooldridge said it might be worthwhile to repeat the employee survey, although they cautioned that it is fairly expensive, partly in terms of dollar costs but mostly in terms of employee time.

“There are a number of things I know we have done, but it would be nice to go back and ask the same questions now,” Nordby said.

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