COLUMN: Moving forward by looking back

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By David Giuliani

Hindsight is 20-20, as politicians who insist they want to move forward like to say.

But sometimes it’s important to take a look back to see if some things could have been done better.

Let’s hope Mayor Tony Marquez and the City Council do just that.

In June, a City Council majority fired six of 10 department directors then immediately proceeded to hire a new city manager. In other words, the manager, Sharon Caballero, started with less than half of the city’s management team in place.

Talk about a recipe for problems.

The city was left with little institutional memory in its top ranks, and many things got lost in the shuffle.

Mayor Tony Marquez was elected last March with the promise of great change at City Hall. But with most of the management team gone, he could get little done to improve city government operations.

Then the city went months without filling any of the director positions. Marquez and Caballero argued that the city benefited from savings by keeping the positions unfilled.

That was clearly a mistake. The cost of a less-than-half-filled management team was far greater than any savings produced by the vacancies.

Sure, interim directors were appointed for five of the positions, while Caballero was named interim finance director. But when directors aren’t permanent, it’s hard to effect real change for the better. Everything is in flux.

Things got lost in the transition. The finance department wasn’t up to date with its reports, and the city struggled to draft a budget acceptable to the state. Also, the city clerk’s office had to scale back its operations. I used to get full packets of information for City Council meetings, but that dropped by the wayside some months ago. Meetings agendas are also released later than they used to be. I’m sure there are many other such examples throughout city government.

Without a complete management team, the pressure became so great that Caballero left suddenly in December. She burnt out.

Only in the last couple of months has the city started to fill some of the vacant positions — first, housing and finance. Then public works. And finally, recreation director and city clerk. The fire chief’s position remains filled by an interim. Just last week, the city put utilities director, George Du Four, on leave without pay.

Now, the city is struggling to find a new city manager. It’s understandably hard, given the city’s revolving door of managers over the last decade.

So why do I bring all this up again? Because there could have been a better way to handle this whole process.

Instead of the dramatic firing of the six directors, the city could have first advertised the positions and then given the current occupants a chance to apply and make their cases why they should stay.

At first glance, that seems foolish. Asking people to apply for their own positions would hurt morale. But city directors were already pretty uneasy with the change of administrations. They feared for their jobs; they serve at the pleasure of the mayor and council.

Marquez and his allies are always quick to point out that they didn’t fire the six directors. Rather, they simply didn’t reappoint them from the previous mayoral administration. Legally speaking, they are correct (although in plain English, “firing” is the more appropriate word when one is forced out of a job).

Still, it would have benefited the community in several ways if Marquez had advertised all the directors’ positions and asked the directors to reapply. That way, if the council decided to get rid of a director, it would have other resumes on hand, so it could replace that person relatively quickly.

Also, a reapplication process would have given the mayor and council a better understanding of their current directors. The council fired Carlos Ortiz, the public works director, then hired him the very next business day as a project coordinator. The city advertised his public works director position, but didn’t find any candidate as qualified as Ortiz.

So the council majority had to reverse course and hire back Ortiz. These days, he’s part of the two-person team serving as city manager.

If Ortiz had simply been given a chance to reapply, the city wouldn’t have had to create the needless instability in the public works department.

Let this be a lesson for future mayors: Think long and hard before firing a bunch of directors at once.

David Giuliani is managing editor of the Las Vegas Optic. He may be reached at 425-6796 or dgiuliani@lasvegasoptic.com.