Experience? Credentials? Who Needs 'Em?

Naresh Dham figured he was an excellent bet for a promotion. An administration manager in the plan review section of the public works department's Building Inspections Division, Dham had consistently received excellent performance evaluations in his 18 years with the city. Two months ago, Dham's boss was promoted to a division manager position, opening the job of chief inspector. Only Dham and two other people applied for the post, and one of the other applicants subsequently withdrew his name.

In addition to his stellar performance record, Dham had the resume for the promotion. He'd earned six national certifications in the Uniform Building Code, more than most of his superiors, and was the only state-certified specialist on disabled access in the entire public works department. And he'd been overseeing six plan reviewers with no complaints about his management skills.

But he didn't get the job. Instead, it went to the other applicant, a supervisor with fewer credentials. It was the second time in three years that an underling had been promoted past Dham. Prior to the first slight, Dham had complained on several occasions that he wasn't being given the responsibility his job called for, and had asked to be given more work. As a solution, his boss asked him to sign a voluntary demotion. Dham refused.

Dham asked deputy assistant director Sonny Evans why he had been passed over for a promotion again. "Mr. Sonny says that I can't make a decision, so I lost the job," says Dham with an air of resignation. Evans, he says, offered no evidence.

Evans, who heads the plan review section, has had no trouble advancing in the ranks. He was promoted from division manager to his current job in 1995, even though he'd been caught accepting illegal gifts two years earlier, for which he was suspended for 10 days and temporarily transferred.

Melvin Embry, the department's deputy director of building inspections, insists that Evans, despite his past transgression, was promoted for his skills, But Embry can't offer an explanation for Dham's plight, partly because he wasn't involved in the decision, though his experience working with Dham has been positive. "I've always been comfortable with Naresh," Embry says.

Dham's tale is a familiar one in the public works department. Almost all of the more than 30 current and former employees interviewed by the Press told of others who had languished in professional limbo for years while seemingly less-qualified colleagues moved ahead of them. Since 1996, many engineers have been demoted or left the city and replaced by more cooperative managers or consultants, and morale among those who remain has hit bottom. "I've never seen it this bad," says one engineer who has survived several mayoral administrations.

Some of them probably deserved what they got -- deadwood can accumulate under the city's Civil Service protections. But others were known for being outspoken and for not simply following orders when they conflicted with the rules.

Deputy director Buddy Barnes, who heads the Engineering, Construction and Real Estate Group, says that some workers just can't meet the high expectations he brought to the job in 1996. Indeed, five chief engineers in the group have departed since he arrived. "I have tried to remind people of the goals of this organization," Barnes says. "I like to hold people accountable for what they're supposed to be doing."

Not everyone is held equally accountable. In the summer of 1996, administrative assistant Molly Lindsey requested a transfer from the Street and Bridge Division, headed by John Hatch. Though Lindsey was hired to do more complex tasks, including technical writing, Hatch treated her as if she were his personal secretary, calling her "sweet thing," rearranging the furniture in his office so he would always be in eyeshot of her desk, asking her to set out coffee and doughnuts and otherwise demeaning her. On more than one occasion, Hatch had Lindsey type letters on his personal stationery, including one to his daughter's employer in the Pacific Northwest.

When Lindsey went to a human resources manager to request a transfer, the treatment took a nastier edge. Lindsey would not speak for the record, but her colleagues say Hatch alternated between giving her the cold shoulder and being outright rude, twice reducing her to tears.

Hatch acknowledges that some of Lindsey's complaints are true, but he denies that he retaliated against her after she sought a transfer from his division.

Eventually, after several more complaints, Lindsey got her transfer. But Hatch was never taken to task for his behavior. Buddy Barnes, who supervises Hatch, dismisses the entire episode as a "personality conflict."

Barnes was inclined to be favorably disposed toward Hatch. The two live in the same vicinity in The Woodlands and have known each other from their Army days. When Barnes came to the public works department from the Greater Houston Wastewater Program, in 1996, he asked that Hatch be transferred with him into the vacant $85,000 job heading the Street and Bridge Division. The transfer went smoothly -- contrary to normal procedure, the job was never posted, because Barnes requested, and got, a waiver from public works director Jimmie Schindewolf.

The waiver helped, because Hatch might have had trouble competing if the playing field had been level. He wasn't even licensed as a professional engineer in Texas, a requirement for a number of jobs theoretically less demanding than his. More than a year after assuming the job, he passed the test (after failing it once) and got his license.

Better late than never, though, which can't be said for others in positions of authority in the public works department. Susan McMillian was promoted to division manager in charge of the Neighborhood Traffic Calming Section in 1996 at a salary of $60,000 -- even though she has only a high school diploma and clearly does not meet the minimum qualifications for the job as posted by the city. Deputy director Dan Jones and assistant director Jerry Dinkins, who oversee huge building and other public works projects, also lack college degrees, not to mention engineering expertise. A number of others in key positions possess neither the education nor the experience of people they supervise. (Just how many is hard to tell, since the city couldn't come up with resumes for several executive-level employees when the Press requested them.)

Naresh Dham may wait years for his next promotion, but some executive types zipped quickly into high-paying jobs. Deputy director Hilda Garza Scott, who is married to deputy director Richard Scott, received three promotions in 17 months, practically doubling her salary to more than $91,000. Garza Scott runs the Capital Projects Effectiveness Group, created by Schindewolf when he reorganized the public works department in 1994. The entire "group," which tracks the status of contracts and issues glossy reports to the director, has just eight employees.

Barnes and others defend the personnel-selection process. Some of the top people may not have the sheepskin or the engineering credentials, says Barnes, but they've got the experience and proven track records that are worth just as much. Jerry Dinkins, for example, was managing large construction projects well before he was named assistant director over the Special Projects Division. "The director and I agreed that he was probably the best animal to do that [job]," Barnes says.

The problem with having nonengineers oversee entire divisions, says a prominent Houston contractor, is that they can't really know if those making the engineering decisions are doing a good job or costing the city a fortune. "They're clueless, really," the contractor says.

Naresh Dham may know what he's doing, but that hasn't helped him much. He's thinking of filing a Civil Service grievance, but he doesn't hold out much hope for satisfaction. With only two years to go before he's eligible for retirement, Dham will likely swallow his pride and continue to work hard for the public.

"Your morale hurts," Dham says. "Almost your whole life you give to it."

--Bob Burtman


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