On Back Order

A year into Lee Brown's administration, the big fixes that Public Works needs to make still haven't come through

On December 8, Public Works Department director Jerry King met with senior secretary Plachette Williams, who had filed discrimination complaints against the department. Williams told King about the harassment she'd experienced in the field. She told him about the broken promises. She explained why she'd taken action.

The director said he'd look into it and be in touch. He never did get back to her, so Williams called him several weeks later for an update. "He told me to keep on plugging," she says.

If King has been slow to act, it may be because he has bigger headaches to worry about. A December audit by the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche noted serious systemic problems throughout the department, including a lack of accountability, waste and inefficiency and employee dissatisfaction. When you're battling an inferno, little brush fires may just have to burn themselves out. But those fires may ultimately prove quite costly. (King, who usually makes himself available for comment, did not respond to questions about the audit and other issues.)

When Williams saw the posting for an inspector trainee position in mid-1997, she immediately applied. As someone looking for an opportunity to advance in the construction industry, Williams figured the chance to eventually land an inspector's job would prove invaluable as a career move.

According to the city, Williams lacked the required combination of experience and education, and she was turned down. But her supervisor in the Street and Bridge Division, John Hatch, offered an alternative: He'd arrange to have her work in the field for six months to get the experience she needed, though she'd still be classified as a senior secretary. After that, she could reapply for the post, which would be held open for her. Williams agreed.

The move fell at the edge of personnel rules, which allow for temporary on-the-job training but prohibit such manipulation of job openings. At the Public Works Department under former director Jimmie Schindewolf, however, such rules were merely nuisances to be circumvented. Shortly after Williams accepted the assignment, she was issued an official photo ID. Under her picture was a single word: "INSPECTOR."

No job description existed for Williams's subtrainee position, but an inspector trainee's duties are clearly outlined in personnel documents. Noting the potential impact of work errors, the job description states that "Work is typically performed under close supervision of simple routine duties to ensure completion; or tasks are so highly routine that they may simply require following standardized instructions without continuous direct supervisory observation."

Her bosses had other ideas. For a while she tagged along with one of the inspectors, learning mostly by observation. Within a few months, however, Williams found herself inspecting two bridge construction projects and a sidewalk job -- alone. "It doesn't take a whiz kid to know I had no business being over those jobs by myself," she says. "I was thrown out there to the wolves."

Williams says she educated herself enough to know that the sidewalk job, which included stretches on Greens Road and Northborough Drive near I-45, was not being done properly. Still, she signed the daily field reports approving the work, as well as the forms authorizing payment to the contractor. The reason, Williams says, was simple: Two of her supervisors instructed her to do so. "I was told I had to sign off on those reports," she says.

Her account conforms with the way Public Works typically did business during the administration of former mayor Bob Lanier, first exposed by the Press in October 1997 and confirmed by subsequent outside audits. Oversight of construction projects was minimal, and if problems arose, word came down from above to ignore them.

By the beginning of 1998, Lanier and Schindewolf were gone, replaced by Lee Brown and his new appointee, Public Works director Jerry King. But fixing the massive systemic problems at Public Works would take months, if not years, and oversight continued to lag.

After she completed her temporary assignment in February, Williams again applied for the trainee position. Again she was denied, even though her evaluations uniformly rated her performance as "very good" and even though she had glowing letters of support from her superiors. "Ready to be an inspector," wrote Street and Bridge construction manager Sherri Holloway on her final progress report. "Plachette has completed more than six months of training and has exceeded in all facets of the job," wrote her immediate supervisor, Sid Thomas (who noted that she was inspecting the bridge and sidewalk jobs "with little or no supervision").

The city never filled the inspector trainee position, which was eventually eliminated from the budget.

About this time, Williams arrived at her desk in the northwest quadrant inspections office and found a city job notice for an administrative assistant position. The notice had been doctored to read "Performs other duties as requested by the group head, including head...." At the bottom of the page someone had written, "The job for you made to order."

She had experienced uncomfortable moments before. Several months earlier, one of the inspectors had photographed her from behind as she was bending over a filing cabinet, then posted the picture on a bulletin board with the caption "at her best." And Williams, who is black, says she had endured several racist remarks from another inspector.

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