Investigation of Civic Life dysfunction turned into pro-management tool
Commissioner Eudaly’s overhaul of city’s neighborhood system devolves into bullying, retaliation, tears
Office of Community and Civic Life employees have been going outside their department with complaints of abusive working conditions for most of two years. We now have a clue as to why they failed to get traction.
Late last month, the Bureau of Human Resources and the City Attorney’s offices quashed an investigation in response to an “unprecedented” number of OCCL workers, days after it was announced by city Ombudsman Margie Sollinger.
“Unfortunately, late last week, I learned that the review has not been designed as I expected, and its purpose has changed to the point that I don’t believe it will be responsive to the many allegations you raised,” Sollinger wrote in an email to current and former OCCL workers who filed confidential complaints with her agency.
“Rather than being employee-centered, it instead appears to be intended as a tool to help management achieve the organization’s goals. Given what I’ve heard from many of you, I am skeptical that Civic Life can succeed in transformative organizational change without first undertaking a process to redress all of the harm done, including holding accountable anyone found to have engaged in unethical, improper or other misconduct.”
“Employees have sought external help but found no relief. We understand the assigned Human Resources business partner sought to conduct an employee morale survey, but that [OCCL] Director [Suk] Rhee terminated his efforts,” Sollinger wrote.
Heather Hafer, senior management analyst for the city Office of Management and Finance, confirmed that “the Bureau of Human Resources is not conducting an investigation of misconduct by Office of Community and Civic Life staff. The City Attorney’s Office, however, is in the process of retaining a consultant to perform a holistic assessment of the Office of Community and Civic Life staff.”
Issues raised by the complainants include:
• Poor leadership from Director Rhee, lack of regard for people.
• Problematic and unqualified managers/supervisors.
• Lack of effective change management, constant turmoil.
• High rate of employee turnover, including employees leaving on own volition.
• Unethical hiring and contracting practices.
• Lack of internal communication and guidance.
• Bullying, harassing and retaliatory behaviors.
• Inability of Human Resources investigations and grievances to resolve problems.
• Inability or unwillingness of leadership to address problems.
“The concerns we heard are well beyond ordinary workplace tribulations or expected growing pains associated with change,” Sollinger wrote. “Many are (were) excited about changes to Civic Life, but subsequently became disturbed by the director’s methods for achieving that change and the collateral damage to peoples’ lives, the work environment and ultimately the ability of the bureau to live up to its mission.
“Employees expressed being at their wit’s end, going on medication, experiencing mental and physical health problems, needing to go on leave, hiring lawyers, dreading going to work and looking for other jobs. At a leadership retreat, staff were asked to draw pictures of their work environment. They reportedly drew pictures of disorder, discomfort, confusion and a lack of safety and support.
Some employees attempted to contact the city commissioner in charge of OCCL, Chloe Eudaly, but were rebuffed, according to Sollinger and other sources.
“Left unaddressed, we are concerned that the apparent internal dysfunction will persist, employees will continue to suffer adverse work environments, and those who can will continue to leave. Further, the longer the problems go on, the more the city’s potential liability grows,” Sollinger concluded.
No further details have been released, but interviews with former OCCL employees provide detail.
Former crime prevention specialist and current City Council candidate Mingus Mapps described the agency as having “a cultural and common practice of abusing employees” so severe that “every day” he saw coworkers reduced to tears.
Workers who reported negative public feedback to OCCL programs to their supervisors were labeled racist or subversive and subjected to fabricated charges “to distract the public from the screw-ups of management,” Mapps said. “It’s remarkably similar to what you see in the Trump White House.”
Mark Wells, another former OCCL crime prevention worker, confirms Mapps’ assessment.
“I saw supervisors screaming, and crying people storming off,” Wells said. “I just wonder why this has gone on so long.”
Wells’ own complaint about OCCL management got as far as interviews with the City Auditor and the Human Resources departments without resolution. He said he was the sixth of 11 people who left OCCL for better jobs elsewhere since City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly took over the program in 2017.
“I can’t believe they didn’t ask why all these people are leaving the bureau,” he said.
Mapps and Wells are linked in a story that has been widely reported since Mapps filed to run against Eudaly.
Wells refused to comply with a directive to tell Neighborhood Watch volunteers that the program was racist. As a result, Mapps was ordered to document Wells’ insubordination as a step toward firing him. Mapps refused to do so and was fired. Soon after, Wells took a position with a local private security firm.
Rhee has never commented publicly on that story, and did not accept the Examiner’s invitation to do so for this story.