Cesspool Of Arrogance

There's Nothing Wrong With Tucson Water That A Giant Roto-Rooter Couldn't Fix.
By Jim Wright

BEFORE HE SPLIT for a new job in California a couple weeks ago, former City Manager Michael Brown told a strange tale of resistance and sabotage at Tucson Water, the department overseeing Tucson's most valuable natural resource.

Brown said the most serious problem facing the water department has been "its own professional ethics."

He called the department a city manager's worst nightmare: A group of employees who pursue their own public policy course.

In our democracy, the making of public policy is usually reserved for duly elected legislative bodies. In city government, public policy is supposed to be enacted by an elected mayor and council.

But Brown said that's not the way it's been done for some time at Tucson Water, which he occasionally referred to as "the technocracy" or "the subculture."

According to Brown, this group does not include "the guys who turn valves or read meters, dig holes, drive trucks or do tests."

The group he's complaining about, Brown said, is made up of 100 or so well educated, professionally committed people in mainly the middle ranks (engineers, hydrologists, and finance and technical staff) who believe they're defenders and protectors of the public interest.

According to Brown, the members of this "subculture" believe they're doing the right thing by "defending against" public policy set by Tucson's elected officials.

In some ways, Brown admitted, this is good--it's great to have employees who want to deliver quality water and who are alert to potential errors of governance.

Brown argued, however, that what the subculture perceives as "what's right for the public" and the public's definition of "quality water" are two different things.

Assistant City Manager Scott Ullery says the central issue many Tucson Water technocrats can't seem to abide is the movement toward greater customer participation in the marketplace.

Customers want quality products, Ullery notes. Several years ago, when brown, crappy-tasting CAP water was delivered to tens of thousands of Tucson homes, Tucson Water staff said, according to Ullery, "It's just an aesthetic thing." And when that didn't seem to quench the firestorm of protest, they added, "What's the matter? The water meets EPA standards."

"What they were saying, Ullery said, "is, 'The government says the water's okay.' This was the classic example of the government defining what's okay for us. And finally people said, 'It isn't okay! We don't want this crap!' "

The calcified bureaucracy at Tucson Water is accustomed to arguing only in terms of what it understands to be scientifically sound, Ullery observes. Traditionally, Tucson Water officials have also been allowed to call the shots.

Deputy City Manager John Nachbar, who oversees Tucson Water, agrees with Ullery, adding he believes the department must become more customer oriented.

It's time, Nachbar says, for Tucson Water to "discern the customers' preferences regarding our product, which is water, and work our way back from that. Which is kind of the reverse of putting out a product and expecting the citizen/customer to accept it." This new approach represents "a pretty big shift," according to Nachbar, in the way the department has treated its captive market in the past.

Brown said the employee subculture afflicting Tucson Water is fairly common.

"We saw this occur several years ago in the East Bay Municipal Utilities District," Brown said. "The utility's governing board hired a former city manager to break the employee culture, and instead the manager ended up out of a job after employees organized a campaign to oust several members of the board."

What some consider an isolated situation in Tucson Water is actually a phenomenon occurring the world over, according to Ullery.

What led to the downfall of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, he argues, was, at least philosophically, the same issue now buffeting Tucson Water: The organization is unable or unwilling to address the demands of its customers.

Resistance to change has--and will--continue to cost city taxpayers and Tucson Water ratepayers millions of dollars, Brown said.

While the former city manager gave himself high marks on his handling of most city departments, he confessed he'd screwed up with Tucson Water's technocrats.

"I tried to talk with them," he said. "I tried to reason with them. I even had informal talks about how governments operate in a democracy. But maybe I should have gone in with Attila the Hun instead."

One example of how far out of control the water department is, Brown said, is the lack of any recharge going on within Tucson's central water basin despite directions from the City Council and a voter-approved initiative, Proposition 200. The initiative mandated the city's CAP allocation be recharged or used for mining or agriculture for the next five years while the city figures out how to make it safe for pipes and palatable to customers.

"We've been hammering on people like mad to get water going in (to central well field recharge projects)," Brown said, "but to no avail."

A few heads have rolled over the issue, Brown said. Several top- and division-level managers are no longer in the department. And Brown added he wished he'd moved more people out.

Brown also complained Tucson Water officials are still hiding project costs from the public.

Traditionally, department officials have listed only a fraction of a project's cost. Let's say an $11-million pipeline project is listed at $4 million. Additional costs--such as transportation, distribution and storage--are listed on other budget pages under those general categories, making it difficult for political leaders and officials outside the department to determine what's really going on.

Brown said he directed Tucson Water staff to change the way project costs are represented in budget documents, only to learn a year later when the city's general budget draft came out that his directive was ignored.

A confidential draft report by the consulting firm of R.W. Beck completed just before Brown was hired in June 1993 noted, "Tucson Water (is) an organization with extraordinary management longevity. While stability implies continuity and expertise gained through long experience, it can also imply fixedness and staleness, as when individual managers become set in their ways."

The draft also noted most managers had been in their "current branch of the organization for over 20 years." This has led to problems, according to the report. For example: "It is difficult for managers to realize that their challenges have changed, and that their solutions must change, too." And, it noted, the "gradual growth of 'turfism' adds to problems of communication and coordination."

Brown said the department's intractable technocracy has undermined city leaders' credibility with the public, because the council had been told the problems with foul-tasting, corrosive CAP water would soon go away. Now, Brown said, the city has to live with the consequences of the department's arrogant misrepresentation of the facts in that instance.

Furthermore, he charged many individuals in the department haven't learned from the CAP experience and continue to thwart public policy. Brown said he often heard the technocrats' complaints filtering up to his office as whispered criticisms of policy decisions. "They'd say it's 'just political interference,' or it's because of 'weak city managers,' " he said.

Before he resigned, Brown began an intensive program of employee training he hoped would fix the problems in Tucson Water.

Knochbar says there isn't a standard way to deal with such problems, but administrators are currently surveying employees and have implemented a system of one-on-one interventions.

Meanwhile, Luis Gutierrez, Brown's replacement as city manager, pledges public policy determinations will not be undermined or thwarted on his watch. The policy of the mayor and council "will be delivered," he promises.

But Gutierrez is quick to note most of the employees in the water department have spent the last 20 years in an organization that has done little more than pump and distribute groundwater. The advent of the CAP has created a dramatically more complicated situation, and time and effort will be required to adopt to the new reality, he says.

Of course, voters have a right to expect competent results--and the power to demonstrate their displeasure, as they did with Proposition 200. TW

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