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Union workers say managers worsening Multnomah County chaos

Almost none will say it publicly, but talk to Multnomah County’s unionized employees and you may get the impression the layoffs that claimed nearly 300 of their co-workers in the last two years should have started instead with some of the county’s top management.

Complaints are accumulating, most dating from Diane Linn’s accession to County Chair in 2001, and her appointment of John Ball as “chief operating officer.” They say Linn and Ball are bent on refashioning the county to mimic a private sector corporation — with a top-down management style, high salaries for top managers, and continual restructuring. They say Linn has insulated herself from bureau management and front-line workers, and leaves the day-to-day management to Ball, who has become a de facto unelected county manager.

All of these are charges Linn and Ball deny. They say they’re bound to attract criticism for their management decisions at a time when a sizable drop in county revenue requires cuts at all levels. They say they expect opposition, which Ball called “pushback” and Linn termed “dynamic tension.” Union-management relationships in the public sector are often complex. Union members helped elect Linn; now they must deal with her decisions as their employer.

“The people I represent are really not happy with Diane Linn,” said Marla Rosenberger, president of the county’s largest union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 88. “There are many areas where we’re disappointed in Diane’s leadership.”

One of the biggest of those areas, Rosenberger said, is Linn’s reorganization of the county.

Re-organized Chaos

It’s what one senior City Hall staffer called “a reorganization merry-go-round” — divisions are added and subtracted from departments,departments are combined and subdivided, department names are changed and rechanged.

In December 2001, Linn combined the divisions of Transportation, Elections, Animal Control, Land-Use Planning, Assessment and Taxation, and dozens of others, into a new super-department called the Department of Business and Community Services. This year, Linn proposed to break it up again into three departments: Finance and budget, shared services, and community services. Under the county charter, it takes a four-fifths majority on the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners to create a new department. Because commissioners Lonnie Roberts and Serena Cruz voted against the breakup, the proposal failed. Linn is going ahead with the split anyway. She just won’t call the new units departments for now — and she won’t be able to use her recently-won authority to negotiate director salaries without consulting the board.

“I don’t even know what all the titles are any more, and I’ve been with the county 24 years,” Rosenberger said.“It’s like a shell game. People are unhappy with the constant reorganization, not knowing where they’re going to report tomorrow.”

Gary Magnuson, chief steward in the Mental Health and Addiction Services Division of the Department of County Human Services, says Linn isn’t the only county chair to reshuffle the bureaus. Bev Stein did it, and so did Gladys McCoy before her. “None of these reorganizations have improved treatment delivery for clients,” Magnuson said. “Every time they create new departments, it adds more chaos.”

Magnuson said chaos from reorganization is only compounding the chaos from cuts to frontline staff — including about 250 job losses in the Department of County Human Services alone since June 2002.

Shared Services

The latest reorganization — the split up of the recently created super-department — came because Linn and Ball are trying to implement a concept, “shared services,” that is widely used in the corporate world. Shared Services is supposed to eliminate duplication and improve service by consolidating internal functions such as computer administration, human resources, facilities management and contract management, and then running those operations like separate businesses, “charging” county bureaus for using those services.

For example, computer technicians who now work for individual bureaus in the county would instead work for the shared services’ Information Technology (IT) Division, which would bill their former employers for the work they do. The shared services department and the bureaus paying for the services will jointly decide how to allocate the workers’ time.

As Ball and Linn envision it, the county’s shared services department would eventually include human resources, contracting, facilities, training, information technology, evaluation and research, and warehousing.

In effect, shared services is about carving off specific tasks, and getting used to paying separately for them. Could shared services lay the foundation for contracting out to private businesses some of the work now done by union members? That’s what Mary Orr, a member of the Local 88 Executive Board, wonders.

Orr did intensive research into use of the shared services concept by corporations and other governments, and found it repeatedly associated with contracting out.

Ball insists such fears are unfounded.“We have no intention to contract out,” he said.

It comes down to trust. Linn said trust will be required for the shared services plan to work well. Can the union trust Ball and Linn?

Linn, one-time head of the abortion rights group Oregon NARAL, later ran the City of Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement, and served on the County Board. As County Chair, Rosenberger says Linn is rightly praised for her work to pass the library levy and the temporary tax surcharge to fund schools and community services.

But longtime well-wishers have noted a personality change that coincided with Linn’s divorce from labor stalwart and former state legislator Dick Springer. She began dating John Rakowitz, who as her former chief of staff also worked as the county’s senior liaison to the business community.Rakowitz left Linn’s employ in July 2002 to become the business community’s liaison to the county — lobbying the county as “government affairs manager” for the Portland Business Alliance.

When early this year Portland Mayor Vera Katz was scrambling to find replacement moneys for Portland Public Schools, Linn was focusing her energy on pushing a payroll tax to replace the county’s business income tax — exactly the reform the Portland Business Alliance was pushing.

Linn characterized as “sexist” the suggestion that she is unduly influenced by Rakowitz. Rakowitz is reportedly no longer the liaison to the county.

“I don’t think these are the values she grew up with,” said Gretchen Kafoury, a former city commissioner and county board member, now a faculty member at Portland State University’s Hatfield School of Government. “It’s almost as if she morphed into someone I don’t recognize.”

Before, Linn was a board member and a team player; now, she’s the CEO. “The title of chair makes it seem like you’re just the presiding officer running meetings,” Linn said. But the county charter defines the chair as the county’s “chief operating officer,” in charge of managing its bureaus.Thus, she said, the nature of her job — executive -—creates the perception that it’s top down. Linn said her management style is no different than her predecessor Bev Stein; only the fiscal circumstances have changed. “I’m trying to reach out to county employees,” Linn said.

Union leaders say they don’t see it. Stein was known for her collaborative approach. She had a program, called RESULTS, that used employee surveys and meetings with workers and the union to get new ideas, and feedback about management proposals. Employees felt they were listened to. That program has been scrapped under Linn’s administration, and union leaders say they don’t feel they’re included in Linn’s decision-making process.

Neither do they trust Ball, despite his past good relations with other unions. A former real estate broker, Ball started in public life as a member of the Eugene City Council. Stefan Ostrach, now an organizer for the Teamsters, then represented AFSCME’s Eugene branch; he says Ball helped the union win a major pay equity study that led to raises for underpaid largely-female classifications in the city’s workforce. Ball later served as a Lane County commissioner. He was next appointed director of the Oregon Commission on Children and Families. He moved to Portland to head the job-training non-profit Worksystems, Inc.

Ball is intelligent and charismatic, and has his share of admirers. They describe him as articulate and personable, a “big ideas” man with a gift for abstractions. His detractors are likely describing the same quality when they charge that he communicates in a kind of corporate buzzword boilerplate, laden with jargon and generalities — as in this early memo introducing Shared Services:“Shared Services concepts will provide a more customer-driven focus for our internal and external services, including IT.

Shared Services will allow for more collaboration, innovation and service integration, not make us choose to “centralize” or “decentralize” services ...I seek to create a truly shared IT infrastructure in this organization to support integrated applications, integrated services and integrated data for informed management decisions.”

Such a corporate ethos — in the county’s top manager — is raising hackles among many county workers, who say it’s not necessarily a good idea for the public sector to emulate for-profit corporations. Ball refers to the county as “the company,” calls citizens who interact with county agencies “the customer,” and describes employees as “the human capital of the company.” Linn and Ball can order workers to report to the new shared services managers, but they will have some persuading to do before very many buy into the idea.

Linn acknowledged the change to shared services will be disruptive, but said it’s necessary to save money. The county is wasting thousands of dollars in duplication, she said.“We’re doing it to gain efficiencies.”

Linn said the county would have to spend a little more up front to hire Shared Services “account managers,” but said the efficiencies of the concept would save money later on.

County Commissioner Serena Cruz was unconvinced, calling shared services “a solution in search of a problem.” “We haven’t defined what it is we’re trying to accomplish,” Cruz said.

Of the two county agencies that are independent of the chair’s office — under the district attorney and the sheriff — neither are planning to take part in the shared services experiment.

Ball, too, said he knows county workers are unhappy about the change. But the public sector will have to get used to a more rapid “organizational evolution,” he said. These kinds of shakeups are a constant in the corporate world, Ball said, citing an Intel executive who once said: “If you haven’t been reorganized in the last six months, you’ve been forgotten.”


One of their objections to the restructuring, Rosenberger and Magnuson say, is that it interferes with the county’s seniority system, which they regard as a foundational principle of unionism. “Seniority is about repaying someone for the loyalty they’ve shown to an organization,” Rosenberger said. “It’s the carrot you hold out — the longer you work somewhere, the more secure you are.”

Ball said the union is right to defend seniority rules, but that they may need to be modified. “[The county’s seniority rules] were set up at a time when these kinds of cuts were not anticipated,” Ball said. Now, they result in maximum disruption, he said, since a layoff in one position can end up bumping several less senior employees into different jobs.

The two sides reached a compromise in September with an interim contract agreement. Under the accord, senior employees can be bumped to any county bureau, irrespective of restructurings, so long as the job is within their classification.

Firing the union’s favorite managers

Of course, there’s no seniority protection for managers. It’s an odd issue for a union to consider, but Rosenberger and others say another source of unhappiness among union members is the abrupt dismissal in March of several well-respected managers who had good relationships with the union.

After 15 years of service to the county, Howard Klink, manager of Aging Services, was given four hours to clean out his desk. Jim McConnell, a 21-year county employee and director of the Aging and Disability Services Division, was sacked — with a severance package — despite that fact that he’d volunteered to retire three months later to help solve the budget crunch. “They threw us out that day and told us not to come back,” McConnell said.

Linn and Ball insist the layoffs were for budget reasons: They were trying to save money by laying off top managers. McConnell and others dismiss that claim, pointing out that the affected agencies get more than 80 percent of their funding from federal and state sources, not the general fund that the county board had to pare.

“They like to blame it on having to make hard decisions,” said Jim Carlson, another manager who got the summary layoff treatment. “But you don’t have to treat people like this to make tough decisions.”

Ball said legal regulations require a kind of ruthlessness when employees are laid off. He didn’t provide details.

Several months after dismissing the managers for budget reasons, the countywas recruiting nationally for the position in the library and offering top dollar. The new director was offered a $30,000 increase in salary over her predecessor (to $136,000) though that deal is in limbo since Cruz led a majority of the county board to overrule the offer.

This article appeared in the Oct. 3, 2003 edition of the Northwest Labor Press — and is reprinted with permission.



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Last Updated: November 9, 2003