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Vero employees in for shock: Written performace reviews

(Week of February 17, 2011)

If the City Council follows through on its fervor, life is about to change for most of the 450 employees of the City of Vero Beach.

Up to now, only one department in the city -- the police -- receive any kind of written performance reviews. But soon all employees will be given measurable objectives and held accountable for achieving them.

“It’s going to be a culture clash, I can tell you, because it’s never been done in the City of Vero Beach,” said Councilman Craig Fletcher, who tried to institute reviews the last time he was on the City Council.

The issue came up at the last regular City Council meeting, but the news got buried amidst the coverage of the vote to fire City Attorney Charles Vitunac.

When Council members went looking for documentation as to whether top city staff -- specifically the three charter officers -- had been living up to their job descriptions and meeting their goals, they found nothing to go on in the personnel files.

Other than a 90-day probationary review, employees from the lowest-level manual laborer to the City Manager are not evaluated on paper.

“I’m shocked that a government entity would not sit down with the employees on a yearly basis to make sure they were doing their jobs,” said Councilwoman Tracy Carroll.

When members of the City Council were stunned by the revelation and the public in the chambers gasped in disbelief, Acting Electric Utilities Director John Lee rose to the podium to provide confirmation.

“I have been with the city 31 years, now some of you may think that’s too long, and I’ve never been reviewed,” Lee said. “There has never been a formal one. For 31 years, every City Council has discussed it and every City Manager has chosen not to do it.”

Mayor Jay Kramer proposed having the City Council formally review the City Clerk, City Attorney and City Manager so things like a resolution for termination could be based on concrete documentation instead of subjectivity. Kramer said a review would show “what they are doing and what contributive work they do for the city.”

Fletcher said reviews wouldn’t solve the inherent human element in the process, but that reviews are quite useful in handing down progressive discipline, in negotiating with a union over an employee, or in the worst case, defending the city in a lawsuit.

“No matter what you do on an evaluation, some of it is going to be subjective,” Fletcher said. “But it requires them to set long-term and short-term goals and you always go back and talk to the people one on one. You’ve got to have that piece of paper.”

Vice Mayor Pilar Turner, who spent her engineering career in large corporations, just shook her head at the lack of accountability and oversight for this huge public expenditure which is the city staff.

“You must establish measurable performance criteria,” Turner said. “I have never hired someone without giving them performance criteria and measurable milestones.”

Apparently time is the only milestone valued by the current system.

Back when times were good, before hiring freezes and furloughs, employees received across-the-board annual raises of 5, 6, or even 7 percent or more without even the formality of a basic performance review.

To increase salaries while the employee stays in the same job, the city uses a typical government step or level system. If the employee moved up a step in any year, that increase was tacked onto the across-the-board raise.

During the same time period, employees at Vero firms large and small were jumping for joy to simply keep their jobs. Folks on Social Security were surviving on a mere 2 or 3 percent COLA increase. But their tax dollars and utility bills were sometimes funding double-digit raises for public employees, plus health insurance and pension contributions.

The issue seemed to touch a nerve with Interim City Manager Monte Falls, who defended the practice of not performing formal reviews. Falls, who has worked for City of Vero Beach for the past 20 years and in various government jobs prior to that, appeared out of touch with what goes on in the private sector.

“I talk to my managers on a weekly basis,” Falls said. “I believe it’s better to criticize in private and praise in public.”

Falls’ statement hinted at a reminder to the Council that any and all performance reviews placed in employee files are, under the Florida Sunshine Act, public record. He also brought up the fact that employees are currently not receiving raises, so there would be no monetary reward attached to a good or excellent review.

“You just have to be thoughtful when you put the process together that you consider these things,” he said.

Technically, only the Charter Officers are under the control of the City Council, but the Council can direct Falls to do certain things. If he balks at doing reviews on his department heads and ordering them to do the same down the line, this may lead to a showdown with the new City Council.

As citizens watching the meeting came to the realization that no reviews are being performed, some wondered aloud what the Human Resources Director Robert Anderson (salary $105,000 annually) and his employees actually do in a period where no hiring is going on.

Three employees in the city Human Resources department, including Anderson, are collectively compenstated to the tune of $267,000 per year, including health, pension and life insurance benefits. Those staffers will certainly have increased job duties once reviews are performed on a regular basis.

Something the City Council has yet to question is why employees are rewarded for staying in virtually the same job for decades, still receiving raises, without gaining further education, training or taking on added responsibility.

“It’s got to start very soon,” said Fletcher. “It’s got to trickle down to the rest of the corporation.”

The issue is scheduled to be taken up in a workshop to be held directly after the first March regular City Council meeting.