State workers disaffected

Are taxpayers paying more than they should for state workers turnover?

Gov. Jim Gibbons’ tenure has seen growing disaffection in the ranks of state government, with the result that retraining costs may be growing.

Gov. Jim Gibbons’ tenure has seen growing disaffection in the ranks of state government, with the result that retraining costs may be growing.

RN&R File photo

On Sept. 21, Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles field services administrator Thomas Fronapfel was called to DMV Director Edgar Roberts’ office and fired. He was given 40 minutes to pack up his things and leave the building. A badged officer accompanied him as he took the first load to his car. He was marched past his fellow employees on the way to the car. Roberts became impatient with how long Fronapfel was taking to leave and put the remaining things in boxes and set them out in the hall. Some of his telephone log records, a virtual history of his state employment, were confiscated.

Fronapfel, who has worked for state government for 37 years and was three years short of his pension, was given no reason for his firing. On Sept. 24, he filed suit against the state of Nevada.

Numerous state government sources say Fronapfel is the tip of a state government-wide iceberg under Gov. Jim Gibbons. They claim the state workforce has become politicized, with experienced administrators—particularly forceful women—removed or forced out and replaced by more submissive allies of the governor. In Fronapfel’s case, DMV Director Roberts is described as a Gibbons loyalist who regularly explains policy decisions in terms of “what will happen if the Democrats take over.” Roberts did not return messages seeking an interview.

“That’s he-said/she-said bullshit,” said DMV spokesperson Tom Jacobs in declining to produce Roberts for an interview. “I don’t see any reason to subject the director to questions like that. I can tell you this … He’s never said anything like that in my presence.”

There are also reports of job descriptions being tailored to particular people in order to accommodate the hiring of favored individuals.

The breadth of the issue was seen recently at the Nevada Press Association state convention banquet in Winnemucca, where a number of journalists discussed the exodus from state government “of 30-year people.” And when leading administrators have departed, there have sometimes been discussions on television programs like Nevada Newsmakers of whether the latest casualty jumped or was pushed. Yet few news reports on the situation have appeared.

The problem reportedly is present throughout state government, from lower level “classified” workers with job protection to upper level “unclassified” agency chiefs like Fronapfel who can be fired at will, with departures caused by poor morale as well as the reported political intrusion.

In various state agencies, poor morale is manifesting itself in the filing of state-level grievances, U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission complaints, increased union membership, and some departures—even in the face of a recession and poor job prospects. The basis for such actions range from constructive termination (making an employee so miserable that she or he leaves) to sexual harassment. Some officials who have already departed are described by those they left behind as constructive discharges.

One DMV worker says there is also a peculiar form of sexual discrimination operating. “In other words, they’re trying to eliminate all the strong, intelligent women.” She said both men and women are being replaced with “women who are more compliant.”

Gibbons spokesperson Dan Burns said, “But appointments made by the governor—he puts in there the people he believes are most highly qualified to do the job. Period.”

Not all appointments of administrators are chosen by the governor. Some, such as deputy administrations and division heads, reflect the choices of agency chiefs, though they are usually cleared with the governor’s office.

Whether members of the public care about bureaucrats being reshuffled is uncertain, but they do have a stake in it. Re-training costs money, and the state was already paying more for it than most states even before Gibbons became governor. If the state can’t hang on to its people, the taxpayer pays. And the cost of defending an array of complaints and lawsuits is also billed to the public.

Workers in some departments who had long been indifferent to the State of Nevada Employees Association have now joined the group, and many employees have begun carefully documenting what they describe as abusive encounters in their workplaces.

In the Nevada Department of Cultural Affairs, which includes facilities like the Nevada State Museum and the Railroad Museum in Carson City, the problem is described less as one of agency heads acting as cat’s paws for the governor than of Gibbons being generally disdainful of the department’s functions.

The administration does not, critics say, have a policy of promoting from within, instead preferring to install officials with a track record of support for the governor. When DMV director Ginny Lewis departed last year, the department’s second in command—Clay Thomas—was passed over in favor of Roberts, a motor carrier division administrator who is described as close to Gov. Gibbons. Thomas retired on Dec. 31 and was replaced by Farrokh Hormazdi, who was one of three people present at Fronapfel’s firing.

Nevada has always had trouble holding onto workers (“The farm team,” RN&R, March 11, 2004). In the 2008-2009 year that ended on June 30, the state turnover rate was 19.21 percent, which is actually down from a high of 23.97 in 2005-2006. (These figures include both voluntary departures and what are called “unavoidable” departures such as abolished positions or promotions.) The decline was described by a former administrator as the reluctance of workers to leave a job in the current economy.

Fronapfel said morale at the DMV is terrible, among both classified and unclassified workers. He was told by a Las Vegas employee that workers there are as demoralized as in other locations. One told him she was “disgusted with the way the agency’s being run. … All the improvements and advances she [Ginny Lewis] made are just going down the toilet.”

Fronapfel said “a couple of instances in which I was yelled at by the director” are the kind of things that others have also experienced.

He said he endured being shouted at by Director Roberts on two occasions, once over a legislative hearing and on another occasion when Roberts picked up some gossip by two unhappy Reno DMV office employees and brought the issue to Fronapfel.

Several DMV workers said they believe that Dennis Colling, former chief of the DMV’s administrative services division, was constructively terminated. He was described as having been forced out and planning a lawsuit, but he denied that, saying he left because he was able to buy five years of retirement, a decision he attributed to “the changed management there, and I didn’t want to work for the governor, really, and I was able to do it, and I thought, “OK, let’s do it.’” Before joining DMV, Colling ran the state motor pool and also worked in the state fire marshal’s office under several governors of both parties.

“Under [Gov. Kenny] Guinn, things weren’t much fun when they were reorganizing state government, but we at least knew why that was happening, and we rode it out,” said a recently departed state administrator. “Now it’s just gratuitous. It happens and no one knows why.”

A DMV worker said much the same, and explained her intention to support another worker who is planning legal action this way: “Because the work environment has become just awful. I mean, [former administrators] Ginny Lewis and Clay Thomas ran a very tight ship, but it was a fun place to be. Edgar has come in, and he is seeming to be wanting to rid the department of anyone who worked with Ginny and Clay, that they liked.”

Critics say that in some departments, workers are forced out and then offered consulting contracts to assure their silence.

One DMV worker says one contributor to poor morale in the agency is the tendency of higher-ups to pit people against each other.

“[T]hey try and manipulate some people to spy on others. … Edgar is a micromanager. … He gets involved in the minutiae.”

The level of anxiety is high. One worker said she was planning legal action but is worried about her personal safety.

“I needed to get on the record with the EEOC because I’m really afraid—physically afraid.” The italics were in her tone of voice.

Gibbons aide Burns, told of the unhappiness described here, said he was astonished because he has not seen any indication of such a depth of discontent or anger. He pointed out that it is a time of hardship for those in state government—furloughs, frozen pay, and other problems. Asked if he was not describing a climate when workers would be unhappy, he responded, “I’m describing a climate in which I’ve seen a lot of people working really hard to serve the people of the state. You’re describing a climate where everyone’s unhappy. I don’t see that.”

In the state prison system, there is a chronic problem that existed well before Gibbons became governor. The state trains prison guards (known in bureaucratese as “corrections officers”) who then often eventually depart for county sheriff or city police departments that have better benefits.

The public probably does not have a sense of how often changes occur in state government because departures frequently are not announced at all. One DMV employee in eastern Nevada learned of Fronapfel’s departure when his replacement was announced, which set off a round robin of email messages in which workers tried to find out what was going on.