The Making of a Curmudgeon


I haven’t always been a curmudgeon. In fact, I didn’t know I was one until Mayor Tom Bradley “outed” me at a 1993 luncheon in the City Hall dining room.

He had just commended me for the “extraordinary contribution” I’d made in helping him ensure that all employees have an equal opportunity in City Service. He gave me a Commendation Certificate, shook my hand, and told the luncheon guests, “Sam Sperling has to be the original City Hall curmudgeon.”

At first, I didn’t understand why the Mayor had chosen that word to describe me. Later, I learned he was impressed by the fact that, although I’d been retired for six years, I was still actively involved in an effort to replace archaic personnel practices and improve Human Resource Management in City departments.

Looking back, I now recognize that by the time Mayor Bradley retired, I really had become a grouchy old man. But grouchiness didn’t grow on me overnight.       No, I became a curmudgeon over an extended period of time. And I think it had something to do with my growing frustration over the City’s failure to address the obvious need for improved personnel management. I can’t forget the feelings generated by one particularly disappointing experience with City Management.

In 1991, The Personnel Department published its first draft of the Supervisor’s Guide to Performance Appraisal. The Guide, which the City Council had called for, took 10 years to develop. It would have significantly improved the management of employee performance throughout the City organization. And over time, it would have helped control the cost of City government.

The first draft of that Guide was submitted to, and approved by, the City Council’s Personnel Committee. It was subsequently approved by the full Council, with the common-sense provision that it first be used to train City supervisors.

Knowing that the City had no money for training, I and a small group of retired employees (all of whom had helped develop the Guide) took on the job of helping City Management understand it. We designed a program to train City supervisors in the use of this new tool, and we offered our program — without charge — to all the department managers.

Between November 16, 1992, and June 25, 1993, we sent a weekly memo to the Mayor, the Council, and the 35 Department Managers. Each memo focused on one aspect of the Personnel Department’s new way to appraise performance. And most memos cited a nationally-recognized authority known to support the Tasks & Standards approach to performance appraisal. Finally, every one of those 33 memos repeated our offer to train all the supervisors in the department for free.

Incredibly, our offer of free training was not accepted by a single department manager. No one questioned the program we offered. No one asked for more information. And no one defended the continued use of a rating practice that most employees reject as meaningless. But by their repeated (though silent) rejections, members of the Management Team voted 1,749 times NOT to improve Civil Service inLos Angeles!

A few days after our final memo went out, Mayor Bradley retired; he was replaced by a former Venture Capitalist who had no use for Civil Service. The Guide was abandoned without comment, and now — 19 years later — City agencies still use invalid working tests and unreliable appraisals. And City Management still seems to think a badly managed Civil Service is good enough for Angelenos!

OK. Now what? Is there any way out of this mess? Well, as the original City Hall curmudgeon, I have a duty to remind the people ofLos Angeles that — at least in theory — City government belongs to them! Thus, they have two choices: They can stand aside and do nothing; or they can use the March 5, 2013, elections to take back their government!

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