April 13, 1999
WEST COUNTY TIMES
* GRAND JURY RELEASE ON THE RECREATION DEPARTMENT ACCUSES THE CITY COUNCIL OF CREATING AN ATMOSPHERE OF MEDIOCRITY' IN GOVERNMENT
Tuesday, April 13, 1999
RICHMOND The Contra Costa County grand jury will issue a scathing report today on Richmond's recreation department, accusing the city of gross mismanagement going back 25 years and calling for sweeping changes in the way the city conducts its business.
The report, obtained by the Times on Monday, doesn't name names but concludes that oversight of the department was so shoddy that it has caused "significant, unidentifiable" financial losses for the city.
Grand jury members placed much of the blame for the problems on City Council members, saying they micromanaged hiring and firing in the department, and said the council's actions have resulted in "a pervasive atmosphere of mediocrity" in city government.
They also suggested a department in chaos, with employees failing to show up for work or leaving early, misusing travel funds, tampering with personnel files, ignoring work assignments and instructions from managers and arranging for special deals for themselves or friends to rent the Richmond auditorium.
Managers promoted friends, ignored city rules for job qualifications and did not check information on resumes and job applications, the report says. And the department failed to maintain records back to 1974. The problem was so bad that managers could not finish a 1998 audit on the department's finances.
The report is the latest salvo in a nine-month scandal surrounding the recreation department involving allegations of financial mismanagement and corruption. Most of the allegations were made by former department manager Brad Baxter, who was ousted by city officials in July.
Titled "Contempt for Accountability: A Perversion of the Work Ethic in Richmond Government," the grand jury report reiterates a host of problems charged by Baxter, including lost income, poor employee performance and preferential treatment of employees who were friends of council members and top managers. The report also accuses upper management of allowing subordinates to undermine past managers' attempts to turn the department around.
City Manager Isiah Turner did not return calls for comment Monday. But city employees have been developing policies aimed at improving accountability and efficiency citywide in the wake of the scandal. The city began the effort in August when an outside auditor recommended that the city change its policies after reviewing financial records and other files in the Recreation and Parks Department, which oversees the city's auditorium.
Council members vowed to ensure that city officials respond to the report and to make sure the department is cleaned up.
"I think we deserve and the taxpayers are entitled to some closure on this," Councilman Tom Butt said Monday. "I think we need to ensure that everything is fixed."
Councilman Richard Griffin, a 14-year council member, said he had no idea the department was so troubled.
"We'll certainly have to look into that situation and clean it up," Griffin said Monday.
The grand jury report and the condition of the department could become a lightning rod for council criticism in the November election.
Ellie Strauss, a possible council candidate and one of two residents who called on the grand jury to conduct an investigation into the department, said she felt "vindicated" by the report but doubts it will change the way the city works.
"Everybody in Richmond is fed up with the way things have been," said Strauss, who called for the investigation along with resident Walt Fauerso. "They want open, honest government. They want an efficient, well-run machine."
Baxter said Monday that the report confirms his claims that City Hall needs a major overhaul. Baxter received a letter of recommendation and a financial settlement last month from the city to avoid a lawsuit.
"If it's gone on that long in history and it took me, a newcomer, to find it, there's a problem with city government," Baxter said.
City officials confirmed last year they had been interviewed by the grand jury and that the body had requested city documents. Jury foreman Larry Jensen declined to comment on how the department was investigated.
Jensen said he hopes the council takes the report seriously.
"I would hope that the elected officials would be more responsible and set up some accountability for the employees and that the voters would demand that of the elected politicians," Jensen said.
The jury's report recommends better accounting methods, including yearly audits of the department, and it calls on the council to stop interfering with day-to-day operations at City Hall. The report also suggests regular employee performance evaluations and using the evaluations to increase training and counseling or to justify discipline or termination.
"Accountability should become the watchword of city government," the report says.