City Hall Evaluations Shed Little Light – New Haven Independent

By Paul Bass

New Haven City Hall — where all the bosses are above average. In every way. At least according to the other bosses who rate them.

That’s the upshot of the latest round of annual performance evaluations of top city officials.

The evaluations conclude that all 15 officials in question rate as “satisfactory.” “Satisfactory” is defined here as “always achieves standards.” The definition continues: “Far exceeds expectations. Outstanding producer and extremely accurate worker. Achieves peak performance. Completely understands the relationship and duties of related jobs. Totally dependable in performing work, including non-routine assignments. Consistently responsive to work requests.”

The supervisors filling out the 15 reports checked that “satisfactory” box for not only the overall evaluations, but for all 11 categories contained in each report, ranging from “ethics in government” and “commitment to diversity” to “customer service.”

In not a single instance did a supervisor cite a shortcoming in space for written comments. Most of the evaluations contained no written performance details, period, with the exception of those prepared by Development Administrator Matthew Nemerson. (You can click on the evaluations at the bottom of the stories.)

“Real Superstars”

The Independent originally requested the 2014 evaluations on Feb. 15. OnlyNemerson and Mayor Harp had at the point completed their reviews of departments directly under their aegis, and Harp’s were notimmediately available for release. The rest of the reportswere made available over the past week. (Some remain AWOL, including those connected to human services.)The supervisors had to complete the annual evaluations of executive managers under Title III, Chapter 2 1/2 of the city code of ordinances. But that doesn’t mean they have to make them detailed evaluations.

Chief Administrative Officer Mike Carter, who oversees public safety, engineering and public works department heads, said he meets with them every week or two and reviews progress, problems and goals in depth. Mayor Harp said she does the same.

“In D.C., you write a whole textbook” in annual reviews, Carter said, referring to his previous government job. Washington, D.C. evaluations also included a rating system of 1-5. He learned upon coming here that because of the practice of evaluations becoming public, he should reserve detailed discussion of managers’ performance for in-person discussions. He said that supervision is taking place in a “continuous feedback model” with discussions with his managers about “how to improve.”

“The evaluation,” he said, “never stops. What’s important is to have constant dialogue. We have some great people here. They don’t all walk on water.” Click here and here to read about two working groups with which Carter has met regularly, to improve snow removal and modernize the fire department.

The city’s top managers are all doing well, according to Mayor Harp. She did fire one appointee early in her term—prison reentry coordinator Sundiata Keitazulu—after he was refused entry to prisons to work with prisoners because of outstanding warrants against him. And her administration placed another, Nichole Jefferson, on leave pending the results of an internal financial investigation.

Otherwise, Harp said Wednesday, sheis pleased with all her department heads’ performance.“I think I have a really good team,” Harp said. “Sometimes there are things that may happen in terms of communication that might be issue. But in terms of doing their job, I think they’re doing a good job.

“I have real superstars. They have done things of national significance. I think the work that [Youth Director] Jason is doing on Youth Stat has been recognized nationally. I really think that once the whole model is fine-tuned it is something that can be transferable to more places.”

Ongoing Good-Government Debate

On evaluations, the Harp administration is following a path forged by thepreviousDeStefano administration, which began sanitizing its evaluations in reaction to a 2004 state Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC) ruling requiring the city to make the evaluations open to public inspection.The DeStefano administration had fought a request to the FOIC to make performance evaluations public. After losing the case, the administration revised evaluations to include less information. Department heads have since been graded as “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory,” period, and must simply initial that they have discussed their performance across the 11 categories. Any other comments are “optional,” and largely eschewed. Based on who’s doing the evaluations, some of the documents offer detailed, specific insight into how public servants are serving the public and how they can do better, in their bosses’ eyes; while others leave out any specific information or reflection of what the bosses are really thinking.

(“Unsatisfactory” is defined as “below minimum standards.” That means the manager “meets some job standard, or only the minimum standards necessary to complete assignments. Often requires supervision. Does not regularly perform full scope of job responsibilities. Marginally responsive to work requirements.”)

The Harp administration uses the form that the DeStefano administration created.

Some of the DeStefano administration evaluations eventually began including constructive feedback into the evaluations, with written comments offering detailed, specific insight into how public servants are serving the public and how they can do better, in their bosses’ eyes. (Click here, here and here for examples of different years’ evaluations.)

Informally that debate—over whether to make true evaluations public—has continued. It centers on how best to make government managers accountable in the interest of better serving the public. The arguments advanced can be boiled down as follows:

In favor of the current sanitized system: Effective supervisory feedback takes place in private, so as not to embarrass people among colleagues. That produces the best results for the public. The whittled-down, content-free forms follow the letter of the law and the FOIC ruling. New Haven voters elect a mayor every two years; that gives them the democratic ability to throw out the mayor’s top aides (who aren’t civil-service protected) if they believe those aides are doing a bad job.

In favor of writing and releasing true evaluations: “Transparency” or “sunshine”—in the form of public review of how top city officials rate the performance of their department heads, and what they are or are not doing to tackle problems—pushes government to confront problems rather than ignore them. Democracy doesn’t work best as simply an exercise of a single biennial, all-or-nothing vote on a single elected official. And in any case, the city should abide by the spirit, not just the letter, of freedom-of-information rulings.

Goals & Strokes
Mike Carter’s evaluations do mention specific goals he has set for his managers in 2015. Fire Chief Allyn Wright’s goals, for instance, include seating and graduating a second class of firefighters by June 30; selecting a third class; promoting lieutenants and captains; assessing firehouse repairs; updating IT systems up to state standards. City Engineer Giovanni Zinn’s goals include implementing the Complete Streets 2.0 traffic-calming program and developing green infrastructure and energy-efficiency initiatives. Parks chief Rebecca Bombero was directed to expand the concert in the parks series, introduce a film series, grow the parks’ friends groups, and expand turf life and playing fields.

The one supervisor to go beyond checking off boxes about their employees’ performance has been Nemerson, who hand-scribbled comments in the margins. Most of the comments were glowing, though some did contain constructive suggestions.

City Plan Executive Director Karyn Gilvarg? “One of the best,” Nemerson wrote. “Handles talented people who are under pressure all the time very well!” “Handles complicated things with grace and charm and humor.” She also has a commitment to diversity, he wrote, though she could use some “Spanish speakers on staff.”’

Livable City Initiative Executive Director Serena Neal-Sanjurjo? “An inspiring leader who I am delighted to have on the team,” Nemerson wrote.

Transit chief Douglas Hausladen has demonstrated a “remarkable learning curve,” in Nemerson’s words. “A true team player and advocate.” “Strives to be state of the art in everything you do! … Selling your vision.” “Careful to communicate well with pols + constituents.” Elaborating on the “satisfactory” score for “Work environment,” Nemerson wrote that Hausladen is “[d]oing this well now—had to ‘sell’ yourself to staff, but did it thru hard work.” As for “customer service,” Nemerson wrote, “A huge part of the job skill is knowing how to say no.”

Following are links to evaluations released to the Independent:

Parks chief Rebecca Bombero
911 call center chief Michael Briscoe
Library chief Martha Brogan
Budget chief Joe Clerkin
Police Chief Dean Esserman
City Plan chief Karyn Gilvarg
Transit chief Doug Hausladen
Controller Daryl Jones
Livable City Initiative (LCI) chief Serena Neal-Sanjurjo
Development chief Matthew Nemerson
Human resources chief Martha Okafor
Public works chief Jeff Pescosolido
Chief of Staff Tomas Reyes
Fire Chief Allyn Wright
City Engineer Giovanni Zinn

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