By Erich Wagner (File photo)
After a string of arrests of public employees in 2011, officials instituted a series of reforms, from revamping the hiring process and starting an anonymous ethics hotline to launching software for tracking complaints of malfeasance.
And while the new procedures produced results — only one employee was arrested the following year — they also highlighted a problem: different departments handle investigations of complaints and grievances in widely varying ways.
The city’s recently approved $636.8 million budget includes the creation of a new investigator position within the department of human resources. Agency officials said the position handles all investigations across city departments, educates city staffers about ethics and guides them on fielding complaints.
Bettina Deynes, director of human resources, said the decision to revamp the complaint investigation process came out of earlier efforts like the ethics hotline and software — implemented in 2013 — that tracks active and closed investigations. Since July 2013, City Hall recorded 95 disciplinary actions and, as of Tuesday, had 18 active grievance investigations.
“We’re taking the [investigation] role from someone doing general HR or finance in individual departments and bringing in someone with the expertise to do it from a centralized point of view,” she said. “One of the major problems that we were facing was a lack of consistency. One department would go out and hire a firm to do an investigation, versus another having an existing member of staff, who maybe did not have the overview or expertise to conduct the investigation.
“At the end of the day, we had an inconsistent product and that increases the liability to the city.”
Why will the human resources department house the investigator? Most of the calls made to the city’s anonymous ethics hotline were personal complaints made by employees. Handling those issues already is within the department’s bailiwick.
“While we have a very busy ethics and fraud hotline, we came to realize that nearly 90 percent of the anonymously listed complaints are of an HR nature,” Deynes said. “Complaints were often an employee unsatisfied with how they were treated, but not really for the purpose of letting us know of fraud that exists, it was more of an HR department issue.”
The new position not only will ensure thorough and regimented investigations of misconduct, but allow the city to better address the needs and complaints of workers, Deynes added.
“We did really well in giving a vehicle to staff to complain about things that matter to them and now we have to be able to address them,” she said. “We did not have the infrastructure to handle the quantity or frequency [of complaints].”
Steve Mason, the department’s assistant director, said the new investigator will make sure different departments are following best practices on ethics and educate them on what they should look for when allegations of misconduct arise.
“When issues come up, [the investigator will] teach departments how to approach allegations, what to look for, and what kind of evidence they may need to get a hold of,” Mason said.
“It’s more of a proactive approach, while what we have now is a reactive approach,” Deynes said. “By the time the issue comes to HR, it’s now a big problem with many people involved. … Doing the educational piece upfront will also be very helpful and make us able to hold managers more accountable.”