Reporter disowns headline on Public Works audit story

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UPDATE: 5:28 PM: Brian Barber's comments (a second one explained that copy editors write the headlines, not the reporters) have vanished from the website.

The headline read "Public works audit angers councilors".

The headline doesn't seem to fit Brian Barber's story, and in fact, Barber objected to it by posting a comment on the web version of the article:

Tulsa World Staff Writer Brian Barber, (6/5/2008 8:27:36 AM)

I disagree with the headline that was placed above my story. While comments at the meeting were direct, no one was angry.

Good for Brian. Writers need to speak up when headlines distort the reader's perception of the story. Given the Whirled editorial board's disdain for the City Council, it's easy to suspect a deliberate decision to use the headline to cast the Council in a bad light, when it's Public Works director Charles Hardt who comes across in the story as defensive and shifty.

Barber wrote a solid story that explained to the reader not only what was said, but the dynamics of the discussion between the councilors and Hardt.

Hardt had told the Council that the long-awaited audit of his department would be a self-audit.

The self audit will start in July and last about a year, with the organization's representatives on site to oversee the process.

The areas to be examined include service delivery, effectiveness and accountability, management and administration, teamwork, staff pride, interdepartmental coordination and planning for the future.

Several councilors are quoted in the story expressing concern about Hardt's announcement:

"I disagree with us calling this an audit," Councilor G.T. Bynum said during this week's committee meetings. "In my opinion, an audit necessitates some form of independence.

"I think what's planned will have great benefit, but I do think we need an independent audit of the Public Works Department."

Councilor Jack Henderson said that over the years he's been in office, many people have called for a public works audit.

"But I know this isn't what they had in mind," he said.

There are stories out there about a collapsed and unusable water reservoir tank, about pump stations destroyed because of overpressure required by a poorly planned system, about favoritism toward certain developers in the planning of water and sewer projects, about collusion among local contractors resulting in higher prices. I've been told that Public Works has ways of "hiding" money -- not for personal enrichment, necessarily, but to be able to shunt funds between projects without getting the politicians involved.

Many people have been calling for a full and independent financial audit and a full and independent performance audit of the Public Works department, chief among them former Councilor Jim Mautino. An internal self-audit will not provide the degree of scrutiny needed to find and correct problems and build public confidence in the department.

Hardt's reaction to the councilors' concerns:

Hardt grew somewhat defensive with the talk of an independent audit.

"If you want an audit that looks at the books and financial transactions, that's not what this is," he said.

"This is more of a performance audit that looks at how we deliver service, whether we're effective and whether there are ways we can improve.

"But if you really want to know whether we did something wrong, I think you need to hire a head hunter or a witch hunter and get on with it."

Bynum said he doesn't think an independent audit should be viewed as something to expose "any perceived wrongdoings."

"I simply think there would be some value in it," he said.

Hardt said he's been through such audits before that were wastes of time.

"I've found that you have auditors who have no knowledge or understanding of what the engineering world does and no clue as to what our objectives are," he said.

"This is a far more meaningful process than having an audit firm that doesn't understand one thing about constructing something but tells us how we should have done it. That's awfully irritating."

A member of the city Auditor's Office stepped forward during the meeting and suggested that the process should be called a quality assurance review, rather than an audit.

Exactly right. A quality assurance review measures performance against the department's own rules, procedures, and goals, but it doesn't examine whether the rules, procedures, and goals are appropriate or effective.

A real audit process needs to create a secure environment for employees to speak out about problems they've observed. A citeewurkor needs to be able to say, "We've always done it that way, but { it's always seemed fishy, it never made sense, it seems wrong } to me," without fear of retribution. PW is a big department, and it would be easy for someone to shape rules and procedures in a self-serving way without being obvious about it. (Self-serving doesn't necessarily mean lining one's own pockets. It could also involve power or personal comfort.)

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» Public Works follies? from BatesLine

I hear these stories all the time -- stories about minor disasters and expensive mistakes at the City of Tulsa Public Works Department. The stories don't reflect badly on the citeewurkors but on the managers and policy makers further up the hierarchy. ... Read More


Ardent Author Profile Page said:

We are rapidly approaching the time, if not there already, when UT can ask for a cover price and subscriptions and the Whirled, filled with full-page ads for free gold dollar coins and miracle get-rich-quick schemes will be distributed for free at the grocery store alongside GTR and the other "shoppers."
We all knew this was coming with the demise of the Tribune, but are still sad that Tulsa no longer has a daily newspaper of any consequence

city employee said:

I assure you that if an independent financial audit on PW were performed, it'd be extremely disastrous. But first, I want to address the work done and the workers.

Most work processes in place function quite well. There are performance glitches as with any organization and occasional failures in communication, but for the most part, if you call the city for water, sewer, street or other issues, it gets taken care of in a timely manner. If it doesn't, the MAC center (when called) gets in our @$$es and it is taken care of immediately.

We are a 24/7/365 organization. Rain? Oh well. Snow? Who cares. 110 deg heat? Tough. Men from mice down here, guys. We do it usually without much complaint, because we love the work and know we make a difference.

This is why I think a financial audit would bring pw to its knees.
Examine the waste that occurs in each department. Then scrutinize major work contracts. Then examine the way the different funds work and how monies are moved about to and fro.
I salute the mayor for her attempts to get employees to look at performance issues and for constantly asking employees to look for ways to save money. But that's like asking the kings of these little kingdoms to give up their castles.

Oh, and Michael, you're right. There needs to be a secure environment created where employees can feel safe to express themselves when it comes to workplace issues. As it is now, a worker can go through the chain of command with an issue, and usually will end at a brick wall in about two steps.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on June 5, 2008 12:59 PM.

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