Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Give 'Em Hell

“I never give them hell.
I just tell the truth and they think it's hell.”

- Harry S. Truman

About a month ago our commissioners met to discuss the possibility of a pay increase for city workers. It was one in what has become in a long series of all talk, no action discussions that have left city workers, particularly rank and file employees, frustrated and dispirited. Morale at city hall is, understandably, low.

For months now the subject of pay for city employees has been on the table. In a spring discussion, for example, Commissioner Bobbie Agler tried to put forth a proposal that would move the city to a merit based compensation system. It made sense. Unfortunately the other four commissioners turned him down cold. Their reasoning was as startling as it has been consistent. “Developing the metrics to measure performance,” they said, “would be very difficult. We’re a service entity and there are no relevant measurements that could apply to us.” Hence, Bobbie Agler’s good idea was deferred. After the meeting I spoke with Mr. Agler and told him that in seventeen years at FedEx, a service based company, I was compensated based on merit, as was every other employee, in whatever capacity. There were performance metrics for engineers, managers, corporate communications personnel, human resource employees, vice-presidents, couriers, service agents, cargo handlers, analysts, administrative assistants, and information technology professionals. There were performance metrics for everyone at FedEx and compensation flowed from those metrics. The system was fair and just. It rewarded good performance and acted as an incentive for sub-par performers. It ‘s one of the reasons FedEx is such a successful corporation. The right things are rewarded.

When the subject came up again on February 15th, Commissioner Agler once again tried to get the ball rolling:

“What I am hearing is we’re not anywhere on either one,” Agler said, referring to the raises and the insurance. “And meanwhile our employees are left hanging.”

This time all the commissioners seemed to agree. The issue of pay for city employees was reaching critical mass. Unfortunately, little was done. About as good as it got was this from Commissioner Julie Johnson:

“Commissioner Julie Johnson was the first to suggest literally buying some time.”

“How would it be if, for this allocation, we did an across-the-board raise for all employees?” Commissioner Julie Johnson suggested. “That would give us a year to figure out the evaluations and what the procedure is going to be. If we did that, it would kind of release the morale issue as far as this budget year is concerned.”

I’m stunned. The best our commissioners can come up with is buying time. They seem to think that a minimal one time across the board pay raise will make the issue of just compensation go away for a year while they meet in session after session to continue spinning their wheels. That looks more like fear than sound policy to me. The thief is in the house and the commissioners are pulling the blankets over their heads hoping he’ll leave without inflicting too much damage.

In 1976 Howard Beale, the mad prophet of the airwaves, called on his viewers to open their eyes to the realities around them and then open their windows and scream, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna’ take it anymore.” To the experts and insiders he seemed like a harmless diversion. But, as windows all around the country opened and people began expressing their discontent it became clear that he’d struck a chord. People were as mad as hell and they weren’t gonna’ take it any more.

That’s where we are in Emporia, Kansas. Taxes are high, wages are low. Poverty has a grip on close to 20% of the people of this city. Less than 10% of Emporia’s Hispanics and Latinos go on from high school to college or technical school. Slum lords reign with impunity. Jobs and business are leaving town. Minorities feel disenfranchised. City employees aren’t getting pay raises. All of this is going on in plain sight and the commissioners are buying time, hoping the issues will just go away.

The election coming up in April and that’s when Emporians can express not only our present discontent, but our future hopes. The polling places around town will become the places where we can say not only that we’re mad as hell, but also where we can express the idea that we want change, that we want this city to grow and thrive.

As I’ve said before, that’s what my campaign is all about. If I’m elected I’m not going to hide under a blanket while the thieves of complacency and neglect continue to drain the life out of this city.

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