POSTED ON APRIL 13, 2011:
Divide and Conquer
City officials are eager to reorganize a department that only its retiring director could navigate
One of the more substantive changes to emerge in years in regard to the way municipal government operates is being planned by the administration of Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. with last week's announcement of the restructuring of the Public Works Department.
The mayor unveiled the planned changes at an April 7 press conference at City Hall just days after the retirement of the Public Works Department's longtime director, Charles Hardt. The department, which was created in 1990 and had grown into the largest in the city, employs approximately 1,400 employees, taking up more than 30 percent of both personnel and budgetary resources, according to city officials.
Under the administration's plan, Public Works will be split into three smaller departments -- Engineering Services, Streets and Public Facilities, and Water and Wastewater -- each with its own director. City officials have set July 1, the beginning of Tulsa's new fiscal year, as the target date for implementation, though some of the details of the restructuring still need to be worked out.
Under the current system, Public Works is made up of three divisions -- environment operations, public facilities and engineering services -- each of which is headed by a deputy director. There is also an assistant director who heads policy administration.
In an interview with Urban Tulsa Weekly, Bartlett said the need for the changes was made clear by two developments: the release of an audit of city services late last year by the firm KPMG that attempted to identify inefficiencies in municipal government and Hardt's announcement earlier this year that he would be stepping down.
"It became obvious what Charles Hardt had put together was something only he could make work," the mayor said of the massive department and its machinations. "He knew all the relationships and who was able to work together. Most people on the outside looking in wouldn't have a clue how it works. I knew when he did retire it was going to be next to impossible to replace him."
Under the new plan, according to Terry Simonson, the mayor's chief of staff, there will be no Public Works director. And that may prove to be the single biggest element in the restructuring. Rather than having one individual responsible for managing what effectively amounts to one-third of the city's operations, that job now will be split between three people, each of whom will oversee a department with a clearly defined mission.
"By looking at the opportunity of Mr. Hardt's retirement, this appeared to be the year to make some kind of major changes and adjustments to Public Works so that it continues to be responsive to the city's capital needs and give clarity to the public," Simonson said.
Simonson said it would not be fair to conclude the restructuring would not have taken place if Hardt had remained on the job.
"I don't think so," he said. "Charles Hardt was aware of the need for the reorganization ... He was aware that we needed to make some changes that every organization at one time or another faces. He would have been part of that."
The news of the restructuring was well received by at least one member of the City Council, District 8's Bill Christiansen, though he did qualify that response.
"I'm in favor of splitting the department up as long as it doesn't create a communication problem between divisions," he said.
On several occasions in the past couple of years, Christiansen had voiced concerns about the amount of authority Hardt had accumulated as the Public Works director and the difficulty elected officials faced in challenging him on some of his decisions.
"The Public Works job, as it existed in the past, had way too much power," he said. "It was not good that one person had all that say-so."
At least in that respect, Christiansen said, he was very happy to see the mayor take the action he did.
"But the devil's in the details, so we'll see how it washes out," he said.
The restructuring is no small administrative matter or simple renaming of the department, though Bartlett indicated part of the impetus behind the change was a desire to plainly label the roles the departments fill and divide them under those headers.
"We wanted to name each department with a descriptive phrase that described what they are responsible for," he said. "'Public Works' didn't describe any one thing."
In one way, Simonson said, the planned restructuring will seem somewhat familiar to longtime Tulsans.
"What it will remind people of is the old city commission days, when we had a streets commissioner, and a sewer and water commissioner," Simonson said, indicating administration officials hope that results in greater accountability in each of those departments.
"We noticed when they were lumped into one big department, there was some of what we call 'mission creep' -- the tendency for other missions, departments or tasks to divert their attention and pull them away from their core services," he said.
The restructuring will allow the three departments to be responsible only for their area of expertise, Simonson said.
The new department heads now will need to step up and show the kind of leadership that citizens expect, according to Simonson.
"This is a big opportunity for the individuals who will fill those three departments," he said.
The restructuring can save the city money in a couple of ways, Simonson said. He hopes that many current positions that are funded but vacant can simply be eliminated because they aren't needed anymore.
Additionally, the restructuring is designed to eliminate duplication of services between departments, he said. City employees who were performing purchasing, finance or human resources work in the Public Works Department, for example, will be moved to those respective departments in municipal government.
"We're going to be able to fill some gaps," he said. "And we may find we don't need as many people. We should be able to get some economies of scale, some services of scale."
Finally, the city won't be paying the salary of a Public Works director, which in and of itself should provide a savings, Simonson noted.
"Sometimes, people think the way to get efficiency is cut from the bottom," he said. "We decided to start from the top."
Another change resulting from the restructuring, according to Simonson, will be a greater emphasis on customer service. The administration eventually plans to create what amounts to a customer care call center that deals with anyone who has a problem with a water bill, trash pickup code enforcement or any other issue. For now, Public Works personnel who handled those calls will be folded into the Mayor's Action Center.
"We really feel like it's time, after 20 years, to take the Mayor's Action Center to a new level of access and outreach for serving the citizens," Simonson said.
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