By Kevin Raines - In the movie Apollo 13, there’s a great scene about crisis control. As the emergency begins, systems are failing and gauges are dropping and there’s a tinge of panic building in the air. Ground control members are calling out problems nonstop when Gene Kranz steps in and changes the direction of the entire event.
“…let’s look at these things from a… from a standpoint of status. What have we got on that spacecraft that’s good?”
~ Gene Kranz, NASA
What do we have on the spacecraft that’s good? It’s the perfect line to begin solving the problem. In order to survive a catastrophe, it’s natural to ask what’s not working, but in the end it’s more important to inventory the still-functioning assets you have to work with, because those are what will bring you home.
Perhaps we should apply that logic to Adams County government.
For much of the past decade, Adams County has been a shambles, to put it kindly. The sheer number, variety, and diversity of scandals is so remarkable that it marked Adams County as not just the worst run county in the state, but quite possibly the worst run local government in the nation. Colorado Ethics Watch stated it well in their recent report “2011 Ethics Roundup: Top Ethical Failures of 2011”, when they said…
“Adams County was the unquestioned epicenter of ethics problems in Colorado during 2011, with multiple scandals rocking county government and leading voters to demand reform”.
~Colorado Ethics Watch
And truth be told, we’re not just talking about 2011. Adams County government’s ethical breaches and competency failures have been rampant for much of the past decade now.
So…Adams County government is hurtling toward the moon and there are explosions and gauges are zeroing out and we all know that it’s badly broken. So what can we do?
In following the example of Apollo 13, let’s start with an inventory. What do we have in the county government that’s working, and how do we get that taxpayer-funded organization back on the road to being a respectable institution? I’m going to analyze this issue in detail in a series of guest articles over the coming months, but let’s start with the basic question: What do we have to work with?
I’ll put on my white Gene Kranz vest and start, and readers are welcome to comment as well.
Asset #1 – County Commissioner Erik Hansen.
Let me start by saying that I’m not affiliated with a political party. I’m a classic unaffiliated swing voter who has cast votes for Democrats, Republicans, and third parties. I think that political party affiliations overly simplify complex voting choices, so I studiously ignore party affiliation wherever possible.
With that disclaimer out of the way, any reasonable person can see that Hansen’s work has been nothing short of spectacular. He walked into a virtual Chernobyl of ethics, and has systematically begun instilling order out of anarchy. He has provided leadership where there was none, ethics where there was less than none, and has begun systematically putting into place systems and policies that are decades overdue. If you ever see Erik Hansen, thank him. Right now, he’s the single greatest asset that Adams County has.
Asset #2 – Two Vacant County Commissioner Seats
It’s sad to say that the second-greatest asset in the county right now is two empty seats, but let’s face it. The past decade or so has been a complete implosion in Adams County government, and when the collapse is that comprehensive one looks first at the people holding the reins. And while all of the scandals certainly can’t be blamed on Alice Nichol, Skip Fischer, and their long-gone partner Larry Pace, that trio bears significant responsibility for some of the worst ones and for some reason steadfastly refuses to take action even when problems can be fixed. It’s a mystery.
The impending vacancy of these two commission seats is a huge opportunity. When one sees the progress that Hansen has made almost singlehandedly after parachuting into the midst of the very group that created the crisis, imagine where we can be with two professional, ethical, and competent commissioners. Or if I dare dream, three? The commissioner election in 2012 is a watershed moment in Adams County, where we either turn the corner towards respectability or slide back into the darkness.
In the next installment I’ll talk about the attributes we need in our two new commissioners, but right now the good news is that there will be two new ones.
Asset #3 – Pockets of Ethical Management
As I’ll talk about in a future installment, the facts indicate that Adams County government has suffered a complete collapse of senior leadership during the past decade, in both the commissioner role and in key “process” departments and executive departments. As a result, individual departments and managers apparently had little or no oversight as they went about their business.
The bad news is that a power vacuum will inevitably get filled, and anarchy lends an advantage to bad guys over good guys. There aren’t a whole lot of benevolent and ethical Somali warlords, are there? And because of this, we end up reading lots of stories about paving and office furniture and shady land deals.
But the good news is what you haven’t heard about. Despite the widespread reports of incompetence and corruption, there are likely departments that have been quietly run by ethical managers who have shielded their employees from the worst effects. In an organization the size of Adams County, it is not just a probability but a certainty. Under the current regime these good leaders are likely hunkered down and riding out the storm, but they’re out there, and they will flower once good leadership returns, forming the foundation on which the County can rebuild.
Asset #4 – Easy First Steps Toward Redemption
It’s a relatively easy logic puzzle to identify the specific breakdowns in leadership and ethics that caused the collapse of government in Adams County, and the problems are probably not as widespread as you think. I will identify in future installments three specific departments that need overhauls, and whose re-creation will solve 90 percent of the problem. Stay tuned.
Damaged Asset #5 – Low-Level Staff
This is a damaged asset based on what I’ve seen and heard, but it’s an asset nonetheless.
When we read about the scandals and incompetence and waste in Adams County, we often overlook some interesting details. Go back through the Denver Post and re-read the stories, and you will often see snippets of low-level employees attempting to do the right thing. Whether it’s questioning why the County is providing equipment to a paving firm, or earnestly picking the most qualified firm for the office furniture contract, the County has low-level employees who know right from wrong and have often attempted to do the right thing. And someone has been leaking these stories to the press, right?
So why do I call this group a damaged asset? Well, go back and re-read those stories again and read how ethical employees have been treated. Unfortunately, many Adams County employees have been exposed to an environment where unethical behavior was exhibited, condoned, overlooked, ignored, or protected by some of the County’s senior leaders. Are you going to report your boss for unethical behavior when you know that his boss will protect him? Again, why do you think stories were leaked to the press instead of being reported internally?
That type of environment can have a lasting impact on workers. It damages morale, it damages professional development, and it instills an environment of fear and distrust among ethical employees. I have talked to Adams County employees in my research for these articles, and have consistently heard embarrassment, shame, and have even seen an “ethical brain drain” as principled employees gave up and left in frustration.
With the implementation of new systems and an elimination of the “Culture of Corruption” that has been in place over the past decade, will the employees bounce back? Can we recover to the point where people are actually proud to say that they work for Adams County, and more importantly, where they’re not afraid to stand up and point when they see the occasional bad apple behaving illegally or unethically? I think so. I’m an optimist, so my hope and indeed my expectation is that they will welcome professional, ethical, and competent leadership with gusto. Remember the liberation of France in World War II? That’s the reaction we will likely see among employees when Adams County’s leadership turns over in the next year.
Asset #6 – The Seeds of Good Processes
Adams County has existed for 111 years. Why they do not have good processes in place for things like purchasing is a mystery, but instead of going there, let’s inventory what works. Under the leadership of Commissioner Hansen, the seeds of some good processes have been planted, such as the Transparency Portal. There’s a long way to go, but the first bits of green are starting to sprout from the dirt.
So What’s Not Working?
The list above is a good starting foundation for rebuilding. But now that we know what’s working, what’s wrong with the spaceship?
By process of elimination, and by reading the newspaper, you can probably identify the problem areas in general, and as we delve into more detail in future installments, we’ll identify specific problem areas and how to repair them. As I mentioned earlier, the addition of two strong commissioners, the introduction of some policies and processes, and the overhaul of three specific departments will lay the framework for repairing the damage.
However, it’s too simplistic to say that this is only the problem of a few people holding the wrong jobs. The challenge is not those people in particular. The challenge is the culture that those people created, and its residue that will linger even after they depart. This “Culture of Corruption” and its impact on the employees who remain is what we need to focus on, and it is the core issue to be addressed. Turning around a dysfunctional culture, and allowing Adams County’s many ethical employees to come out of hiding and shine, is the ultimate end goal.
I hope you’ll continue reading as we discuss the solutions to this vexing problem, and feel free to offer your own opinions and reactions. I am hoping that this series will serve as a forum for improving our local government.
Kevin Raines is the owner of the 2009 Denver Metro Chamber Small Business of the Year and a 2011 Finalist for the Colorado Business Ethics Award. He joined the movement to reform Adams County government when his firm won a county contract that was redirected to the friend of an Adams County manager.
Editor’s note: Tony’s Rants very rarely features postings written by others but when presented with this article, I knew this had to be put out there. Mr. Raines does an extraordinary job of distilling where Adams County has gone wrong but just as importantly, he spells out what is right and what can be done to fix the rest.