This column describes both the beginning and the end of my first tour of duty in the City’s Public Works Department. I’d gone to the Bureau of Management/Employee Services (B/M-ES) on a promotion. My working title was Assistant Personnel Director. My boss, Harry H. Johnson, was more experienced in fiscal matters than in human resource management.
Harry relied on me, and supported my efforts to strengthen frontline supervision throughout the Department. But after an exceptional first year, B/M-ES was torn by an ethical problem. Harry told the staff he was recommending raises for everyone. Yet, his budget requested no raises at all. Employees felt betrayed. Harry effectively demoted me, and I filed a grievance with the Board of Public Works.
While the Board was setting up a Grievance Committee, Harry had three associates and me moved into an abandoned warehouse several blocks from City Hall. He warned us not to leave our “new office” without permission, and ordered me to call his secretary twice a day to confirm our presence in that dusty old building. In due time, the Grievance Committee was appointed. It conducted an investigation and submitted its report to the Board.
Eventually, I was ordered to report to the Board office at City Hall. President Chappell greeted me, ripped up the Grievance Committee’s report, and told me I was being assigned to the Special Services Division. He told me the Board would soon announce a program to help small and minority contractors and that I’d been selected to manage that program. He said I’d be fired if I didn’t accept his “offer.”
The program I was expected to manage was called the Contractors’ Assistance Program (CAP). My job, as defined by President Chappell, was to teach small and minority contractors the procedures involved in contracting with the City. “It’s strictly a training job,” he said.
I worked hard to make CAP succeed. I went all over town inviting contractors to the classes at City Hall. I attended meetings sponsored by three associations of contractors to explain the City’s new program. But after the first training session — conducted by President Chappell — attendance at the City Hall sessions declined precipitously.
The reasons contractors gave for avoiding my training classes were nearly unanimous: “Your classes address the wrong problem.” Small contractors don’t bid City jobs because they can’t meet the City’s bonding requirements. Moreover, small contractors don’t bid City jobs because the City’s payment procedures are too slow. If the City really wants to get bids from small contractors, it will have to change both its bonding requirements and its payment procedures.
I reported these conclusions to President Chappell. I informed him that the heads of those three contractor associations felt the City’s effort to help small and minority contractors was not working. I told him that the three associations and I were already working on a report that would suggest practical alternatives to the City’s bonding and payment procedures.
Sadly, President Chappell was not impressed: “Sam,” he said, “It’s not your job to change the system. You’re just supposed to teach small contractors how to bid City construction jobs. Clearly, you haven’t done that very well; we are not getting the numbers of bids we expected your program to generate.”
Ultimately, the Contractors’ Assistance Program was discontinued. My position was cut out of the Public Works budget. I took a cut in pay and went back to the Personnel Department.
Later, Tom Bradley was elected Mayor of Los Angeles and Warren Hollier was appointed President of the Public Works Board. He approved my request for a transfer back to B/M-ES, and asked me to draft an EEO/AA Plan for Public Works. In that connection, I was often called up to his office.
On one occasion, President Hollier invited me to his office “…to visit with your former supervisor.”
As Director of the Special Services Division, Sylvia Cunleffe was my boss. Now, she greeted me warmly, and we took turns telling President Hollier about our experiences under his predecessor. She told Hollier that I had once asked her if my phone was bugged. She explained that she’d dismissed my question by telling me to stop being so paranoid. Now, she admitted, “Sam, you weren’t paranoid: your phone was bugged. President Chappell told me to do it, and showed me how.”
Forty years have passed since I served in the Special Services Division. But I remember that experience as clearly as if it happened yesterday. And I’ll never forget the lesson I learned from it: People get the government they tolerate.
Angelenos who want good City government, and who are willing to work for it, could begin now thinking about the next mayoral election. It’s scheduled for 2013. That gives us two years to register voters, to learn about City government and to scrutinize the candidates who’ll ask us to support them.
Contact Samuel Sperling at email@example.com.