Friday, March 3, 2017

RECORDS: City admin worried about obstructionism and lack of "operational excellence" before Streets shakeup

Posted By on Fri, Mar 3, 2017 at 3:20 PM

click to enlarge RECORDS: City admin worried about obstructionism and lack of "operational excellence" before Streets shakeup
Daniel Walters photo
Notes provided by Public Works & Utilities Division Director Scott Simmons (pictured) describe concerns over the quality of leadership in Spokane's street department.

When Spokane's City Hall refuses to talk, sometimes Washington State Public Records Act is the final recourse for answers.

So far, that's been the case with the questions surrounding the sudden ouster of Street Director Mark Serbousek and his second-in-command, Principle Engineer Andy Schenk, from their leadership roles in the street department.

Public Works & Utilities Division Director Scott Simmons, who made the decision to remove Serbousek and Schenk on Feb. 2, has refused to explain his reasoning, arguing that being respectful to employees means not discussing personnel decisions.

But an Inlander public record request for documents "related to complaints or concerns they have raised relating to Mark Serbousek or the street department in the past year, between Jan. 1, 2016 to Feb. 6, 2017," have revealed the breadth and depth of the administration's concerns about the department's leadership.

However, there are few important caveats: The notes are undated, so it's unclear exactly when the concerns were raised. (They were scanned on Feb. 22, according to the PDF properties.)  Similarly, they are unsigned. While they were provided to the City Clerk's office by Scott Simmons, he declined to comment on any of the specifics about the notes or provide any context.

"To the best of my knowledge and understanding, the provided records are Scott Simmons’ notes which he located from a search of his records," City Clerk Terri Pfister wrote in an email. "You are welcome to follow up directly with Mr. Simmons to confirm."

However, Simmons declined to provide anything further.
"We have provided a statement regarding this personnel matter and have nothing further to add," he says in an email.

Though Serbousek and Schenk were ousted amid criticism of the street department's response to blizzards and potholes, the notes mention neither.

(They do, however, seem to allude to the spate of trucks crashing into bridges.)

The notes cite issues that include obstructionism and the lack of "operational excellence" and "employee engagement."

First, the notes refer to a pattern of negative feedback about the street department's cooperation.
Continued negative feedback regarding streets being ... obstructionists.
The notes do not elaborate about what the negative feedback about obstructionism has been, but the Condon administration has prided itself on its innovation, particularly its attempts to break down bureaucratic structures in order to better serve citizens. About a year ago, it moved the street department into the same division as utilities, so as to ensure that the street and utilities departments were pursuing the same goals efficiently.

While Councilwoman Karen Stratton says she's never had a bad experience with the street department, City Council President Ben Stuckart has expressed frustration over feeling that, at times, the street department has stifled innovation.

As an example, he pointed to the department citing the challenges for plowing as a reason for pushing back against the suggestion of protected bike lanes. But Stuckart points out that Salt Lake City manages to make snowplowing work with their separated bike lanes.

However, after a meeting with Serbousek recently, Stuckart tempered his remarks. In some cases, Stuckart says, a great proposal from the planning department is funneled through multiple other departments — including capital projects and engineering — with compromises being made on each level, before finally ending up in the street department.

"By the time [a project] gets to production, people are like 'Why did it change from the beginning'? Streets isn’t being innovative,'" Stuckart says. "I can see how streets gets blamed."

Still, the notes provided by Simmons list more general deficiencies in the streets department, suggesting the frustrations with leadership were broader.
Missing elements in streets:
— Leadership/employee engagement
— Operational excellence
— Culture
— Customer service mindset
— Safety mindset
In a brief phone conversation this morning, Serbousek politely declined to respond to the allegations, pointing to his still-in-flux job status with the city.

"I’m waiting for things to get more stable before commenting," he says.

The city intends to create a bridge engineer position for Serbousek. (In 1993, Serbousek started with the city of Spokane as a bridge engineer, but the city currently contracts out its bridge engineering services.) Even after the engineer position is created, Serbousek will have to go through the civil service hiring process to get the job.

Serbousek says that he and Simmons have discussed Simmons' reasoning for his ouster.

"We have sat down and talked and he has given me his reasons," Serbousek says, though he declined to elaborate.

Another page of the notes provided in response to the Inlander appear to reference conversations with Serbousek about the issue of trucks crashing into low-hanging bridges.

Back in October, the Inlander met with Serbousek to discuss ways the city might address the problems. Serbousek outlined the challenges with the possible solutions, in particular, because many of the bridges are owned by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway instead of the city.

However, the notes aren't clear about the objections, if any, to how Serbousek has handled the issue. Serbousek declined to say if he'd clashed with Simmons over the issue of trucks crashing into bridges.

The notes also appear to raise concerns about Andy Schenk, Serbousek's former second-in-command.
Recent feedback about Andy
 — Bullying
 — Grievances from union
 — Adjusting uniform reimbursement for vacation and sick leave. 
David Kokot, who recently became president of the Managerial & Professional Association that represents Schenk, says he is not aware of any recent grievances against Schenk from any unions. Similarly, a records request for any grievances filed against Schenk since 2015 turned up no results.

Schenk did not respond to messages last night and this afternoon. We will update this story if he responds.

Here's the entire note:

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...