Friday, July 11, 2008

Transportation Cabinet reorganization update

It's been nearly a month now since an ill-advised reorganization plan went into effect in each of the Transportation Cabinet's 12 Department of Highways district offices. To date, the reorganization has garnered little publicity, but that doesn't mean that the furor over the plan has subsided. Instead, as each day goes by, more and more employees are expressing disgust, both publicly and privately. Even some of Steve Beshear's most ardent supporters among the merit employees in Transportation are being roundly critical of the governor and those he's chosen to lead Transportation.

Responding to rampant rumors statewide, the cabinet sent out a press release that stressed that no one would lose his or her job and no one would have his or her pay decreased as a result of the plan, which is causing dozens of involuntary demotions and transfers all across the state. That's little solace, though, to branch managers who are having to reapply for managerial positions and especially those who will not be chosen for the new positions and may be forced into a job they don't want to do, working for a manager they don't want to work for.

Some of the Transportation employee groups have raised questions, but the only concession they've received is that the managerial jobs are now open only to existing employees. Previously, the competition was open to everyone who met qualifications, even those who are currently not working in state government.

Transportation officials also sent a list of "questions and answers" via e-mail to employees, but bigwigs such as Joe Prather, Mike Hancock, Chuck Knowles, Gilbert Newman and Charles Wolfe continue to avoid answering some of the most basic questions being asked internally and externally; questions such as "Who made these decisions?" and "Why weren't any managers or employees at the district level consulted before instituting wholesale closures of offices and transfers of employees?"

We heard that one employees association was trying to recruit an existing branch manager to file a suit and seek an injunction against implementation of the reorganization plan, but it seems that effort was unsuccessful because to date, nothing's been filed. The number of individual personnel actions filed after the branch manager positions are filled is expected to be sky-high, however.

What's bothering many of the employees out in the field is their involuntary transfer to distant locations. Some employees will now have to drive an hour one-way to work when they previously were working in or near their home counties. Taking two hours from their days, and causing them to spend more of their own money for gas when prices are outrageously high, is certainly no way to win friends and keep employees happy. This is a major slap in the face considering that one of Beshear's campaign items was how badly Ernie Fletcher had treated state employees, especially in Transportation. Getting up an hour earlier, getting home an hour later, and spending $20 or more per day for gas isn't exactly treating state employees well, is it?

Two extreme examples have occurred in eastern Kentucky. Harlan Countians are unhappy that their construction office is being closed and relocated to Bell County. Local officials, who have been steadfast supporters of Beshear, have indicated that they believe their county will suffer because of this.

And in Knott County, the construction office is staffed entirely by residents of that county. That office has been closed and moved to Letcher County. This means that all these people will have to drive to Whitesburg to work every day instead of working in their hometown, costing them time and gas money.

Transportation officials are unable to satisfactorily answer questions about these decisions, saying only that people are being moved to where the work is. That doesn't fly. The regional construction offices in each district are spread out enough to allow all counties to be covered; no sense in moving people wholesale and inconveniencing them.

Since local district personnel were given no input into how the counties are grouped into branches and sections, some questionable decisions were made from geographical standpoints, as well. Counties that could have been grouped with other counties that are closer and easier to get to by highway were instead grouped with other counties to which it's a torturous hour-long drive in many cases. For instance, instead of putting Elliott County with Carter County, which is an easy half-hour drive, it instead went into a section with Rowan County. Morehead and Sandy Hook are only about 30 miles apart but it takes nearly an hour to drive the curvy, mountainous road. This blazing display of illogic boggles the mind.

Officials also are talking up their decision to merge construction and maintenance operations, saying it will allow employees to be shifted to where the need is greatest and it will allow for more cross-training and greater opportunities. In whose dream world will this happen? The construction inspectors check on contractors' jobs to ensure they are being built according to plans and to federal and state specifications and requirements. The flaggers and dump truck drivers on the maintenance crews are, for a large part, barely literate and have trouble signing their own names, much less being able to understand complex plans or federal regulations. Maybe a few inspectors have their CDEs and can help drive snowplows in the winter, but are the flaggers capable of inspecting a major construction project such as the US 41 bridge painting project in Henderson or the Somerset northern bypass? We have serious doubts.

Media coverage of the reorganization has been minimal. And no reporters have yet pinned down any Transportation officials to ask the tough questions. We expect this to change as the new branch managers are selected and unsuccessful applicants file their complaints with the Personnel Board and surreptitiously offer tips to the press. (Some of our sources have offered us lots of information, for which we are grateful; keep the tips coming).

We're told that many Transportation officials are of the opinion that "this is a done deal, we need to look forward, not backward." When your car is careening toward a cliff, you don't look forward, you try your best to stop it before there is a horrendous crash. And that's what many in Transportation are trying to do, heretofore without success.


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