Saturday, May 19, 2007

Leaving Monroe County Technical Services

EX Director, Technical Services, Monroe County BOCC

Warning - this blog is, in its entirety, my opinion. If you want facts, these opinions might point you in the direction of truth, but that's up to you!

I just completed my first day as the ex-director of technical services for the Monroe County Board of County Commissioners in Key West, Florida. That is sort of like the Chief Information Officer. I was responsible for Information Technology, Telephone Communications, the Public Information Office and Monroe County Television, the local government channel.

I've never been treated so shabbily in my life.

So why blog about it?

In Florida, government operates under what is commonly called "open government" or "sunshine." In Monroe County, the culture seems to mean "never put anything in writing that you don't want in the newspaper." There is a lot of talking about ways to do things and opinions expressed that make the public record look sort of stupid in the light of sunshine.

There are a lot of memo's that travel around in brown envelopes as communication. There is a full time courier to cart these things around buildings. I haven't seen that in 20 years, but came to realize that a lot of these messages weren't being captured for the public record. I was tasked to "make us paperless" by Mr. Willi when I was hired and proceeded to set an example by using electronic communication almost all the time.

I expected to "go on the record" for most of what I did and have done so for the most part. My email has recorded many of my opinions and recommendations. I have always thought that this provides a good record of action in a public or private organization and, if you're honest, a good record in the event of litigation.

One of the first projects I undertook in this position was to install an email archiving system. Emails should all be there from sometime last summer.

When I started sending emails, I noticed that some people wouldn't reply. They would call or even call a third party to relay a message. My boss, Tom Willi, particularly would not reply. When I asked him about if he read a particular email during one of our infrequent meetings, he told me to assume that he reads his email.

A typical message circuit would be that I would email Tom and he would reply verbally through the Deputy Administrator, who then would, most likely, call a supervisor in my department who she went to high school with. So, more often than not, I was getting direction from a supervisor in my department. Sometimes Tom would give the message directly to this supervisor - never directly to me. Is that just weird or is it by design? I honestly don't know. I suspect that this convoluted message route is at the heart of Mr. Willi's "management style" issue with me. I expect straightforward communication and don't like playing "telephone".

So, this blog is to bring my opinions to light. These are just my opinions. If you want the truth, feel free to contact Monroe County and ask for emails or any supporting documents for anything I refer to in this blog. Likely, you can examine documents, like emails I sent that were never answered, personally.

Suggestions for public requests: 1. All messages sent from Mickey Baker that includes Tom Willi as a recipient, either in the "To:" field or the "CC:" field. 2. All messages sent from Tom Willi to Mickey Baker.

I'm not happy about raising issues and having them ignored. The taxpayers deserve better.
My ex-coworkers and ex-employees deserve better.

Tom, if you're reading this, you know this is true. Communication and culture starts at the top.

Performance and Firing

I did the job for 4 days short of a year, and, in my own opinion, which I believe is defensible given the record, did a great job. My employees love me - with a couple of notable exceptions. I provided new services for citizens, stabilized and upgraded a scattered and failing information technology environment and improved (but did not fix) the abysmal license compliance situation - all on a budget that, for the first year, didn't even include my own salary.

My boss, the County Administrator, Mr. Tom Willi, called me from 150 miles away where he was attending a convention and gave me no other reason than, "it's not working out" and "management style" with absolutely no specificity when pressed.

Other than Division Director and County Commission meetings (large, once per month meetings) we met maybe a half dozen times over the course of the year. Mr. Willi has no specific schedule for Division Directors and required an appointment, which I did seek (and was granted) several times.

In fairness, I was out Tuesday (a rare occurrence for me) for a surgical procedure and he had a County Commission meeting on Wednesday in Key Largo - I did not travel there, but was in the office in Key West, most of the day after my procedure. I had no warning, coaching or any comment from Mr. Willi other than a December 21, 2006, performance evaluation, where he depreciated his "below expectations" evaluation in the "managing people" category, and told me that I was a "victim of mother hen syndrome", told me I was "doing a great job" and to "keep it up". Of course, he and I were the only people in the room, but the evaluation is part of the public record.

I had "Exceeded Expectations" evaluation in technical areas. I had never worked as a manager in the public sector before, so, given attached comments, took the review in stride.

Mr. Willi's Management Style - Communication?

Mr. Willi has been criticized harshly elsewhere for "poor communication." The local newspaper and two of five County Commissioners have called for his resignation. On February 8, 2007, a special meeting was called to evaluate terminating his contract. He was, in my opinion, contrite and promised to "improve communications." His answer has been to hire a consultant and conduct communications workshops with groups striated by management level.

Here's the entire 3 hour meeting if you're really interested, but a Google of "Tom Willi" will get you a good flavor of what the perception is about Tom:

So, I'm left to wonder why I was fired because Mr. Willi won't (or can't) come up with a reason other than the ambiguous "management style" with no details. I find this offensive and just plain bad management. It benefits no one except Mr. Willi.

My Speculation About Why I Was Fired

Yesterday, a reporter with the Key West Citizen (newspaper) called me within 2 hours of Mr. Willi's call. Here's an accurate reflection of what I thought and told the reporter at the time:

I don't know any different than that now. Assuming that Mr. Miller (in the article) is telling the truth, he knew that I was getting fired before I knew. Mr. Miller told me that he is a close personal friend of both the Mayor and Mr. Willi, so this is entirely possible, given Mr. Willi's communication issue. Was Mr. Willi telling his friends that I was fired before he told me?

Taking the Job was My First Mistake

I knew when I took the job that would be the 4th director in about 5 years, so I’m a bit to blame for taking the position without clearer ground rules before beginning. What happened to the other folks is a story in itself... the last guy died, literally, in the office.

Fear Based Culture - Communications

A recent workshop with the Carroll Group with most of the County Division Directors in attendance was held in the first part of May, entitled, "Knowledge Based Leadership." The workshop assigned this group the task of evaluating and addressing what we thought were the most significant communications problems within the County. The group concluded that "communication without fear of retribution" was at the top of the list of problems. Coincidentally or not, I was the only member of the group who did not have the one year career service that would prohibit Mr. Willi from summarily firing me.

Good luck to that group on that topic. Now that the consultant has backed away from the group, the leader is Andrew Trivette, who is up for a huge raise as he gets promoted from "acting" to actual division director. I'm sure Andrew intends to be objective - he is really a good guy - but I don't see how he can be, given reality.

Back to why I might have been fired

I really don't know WHY, I got fired. My best guesses are:
  1. I uncovered some bad decisions that someone made a while back and I had asked for money to fix them in the 2008 budget. It seems likely that I may have touched the “third rail” at some point, criticizing expenditures for technology projects or consultants in place that are, evidently, controversial or worrisome to someone. (Future blog topic.)
  2. I pissed bureaucrats off when I suggested that they might actually change the way they're doing things, like discontinuing brown envelopes in favor of email or eliminating 3 reams of manual telephone bills in favor of an electronic system.
  3. I KNOW that I upset some long term county employees by complaining of workplace behavior and changing responsibilities.
  4. I pissed off this fellow who is a friend of Tom's and the Mayor and he ranted.
  5. County is short-sightedly eliminating payroll - I saved a LOT of money this year, stay tuned I will detail it in a future blog, but a lot of it came from reining in consultants (see item 1)

It is difficult to know what you're doing wrong if your boss doesn't tell you.

More detail later on problematic projects and consultants in place when I arrived...

Mickey Baker