Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Report slams sewer brass

Criticism softened in consulting firm's second draft

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

There is a "crisis in leadership" at the public utility that is prepared to spend $1.5 billion to fix sewers throughout Hamilton County, according to a confidential report obtained by The Cincinnati Enquirer.

The report says the 600-employee Metropolitan Sewer District has a good safety record, but has weak managers and a culture of finger-pointing. Most workers are proud of their jobs, but have little faith in management, according to an employee survey.

"We're re-engineering the organization, and that always causes stress," MSD Director Patrick Karney said this week.

MSD requested the $700,000 review by the national engineering firm of Brown and Caldwell to identify ways to improve as it gears up for a major new initiative.

Earlier this month, the sewer district proposed spending up to $1.5 billion over the next 19 years to fix sewage overflows into basements and streams and avoid a Sierra Club lawsuit. The utility, owned by Hamilton County and run by the city of Cincinnati, collects sewage in 3,000 miles of pipes and treats it.

The county commissioners and the Sierra Club have recently stepped up criticism of the utility's response to residents with sewage-in-basement problems, concerns also addressed in the sewer district's recent proposal.

Brown and Caldwell wrote two different reports. The confidential report - the first draft - identified weak managers by position and suggested additional training or a change of duties. It urged MSD to open the lines of communication between labor and management, and punish disruptive, disgruntled workers.

"Without transformation in the way leadership understands its role in change, the efforts of individuals will not be enough to make MSD viable in the long haul," the June 24 report said.

The first report said the city and county do not appear to be convinced that the sewer district can function cost-effectively. It added: "Employees, with little idea of what it means to be accountable for job performance and output, are placing blame where it's easiest to find fault - at the top."

The second draft - completed five weeks later and recently given to city and county leaders - was not nearly so harsh.

Instead of a "crisis," the report said, there "exists at MSD a real opportunity for leadership."

"I'm very, very curious why sections of the report changed as dramatically as they did," County Commissioner Todd Portune said. "Obviously, Brown and Caldwell didn't make that stuff up. ... I want to know the facts. I really don't care to get a sanitized report on anything."

The first draft was based largely on employee interviews. It was written for an MSD committee of division heads and union leaders before they attended a labor-management conference at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government in late June.

As an internal document, it pulled no punches, said John Salo, senior vice president at Brown and Caldwell.

"We had been directed from Day One to put it all out there," Salo said. "To me, it's quite gratifying and a credit to the leadership when they're willing to have a very direct set of observations around how the organization is viewed."

Salo said the sewer district is up to the challenge of a $1.5 billion overhaul.

Suggestions in both reports included a reorganization of MSD's five divisions to focus on the core operations of collecting wastewater and treating it, with other divisions grouped into a single support division. The consultant recommended that Karney focus less on managing subordinates and more on promoting the district to elected officials, the public and workers.

The internal report included the results of an employee survey conducted in 2002. Returned by 86 percent of employees, the survey found that nearly two-thirds of them are proud to work for MSD. However, half felt top management does not set a good example and 70 percent said the best workers are not promoted.

Still, the utility is on the right track, said union leader Yodie Mitchell, a steering committee member.

"Any study of this kind raises questions," said Mitchell, president of Local 1543 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "I think the leadership is doing everything in its power to address them."

Despite the urgent tone of the first draft, MSD's problems are no worse overall than those at other wastewater utilities, Salo said.

"These kinds of things we see here are very similar to other national utilities. ... I would put MSD in the middle of the pack in terms of a large-sized utility."


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