Tag Archive for: brain drain

Costly Brain Drain Continues in Harris County

On April 14, 2022, I wrote about how the brain drain in Harris County government under County Judge Lina Hidalgo compromised productivity and service. At that point, Hidalgo had been in office just 3.25 years. During that time, the heads of 16 out of 20 departments had changed – many more than once. Those 16 departments had had 34 leaders under Hidalgo by then.

To make matters worse, in some cases, 100% of the group heads under the department heads also turned over, leaving whole departments rudderless and gutting institutional knowledge.

Now, a year later, Judge Hidalgo still has not staunched the hemorrhaging. It’s continuing and perhaps worsening, raising costs for you, the taxpayer.

10 New Heads in One Year, More Possible

In the year since my last report:

  • 10 department heads have turned over.
  • 1 of those department heads lasted just weeks.
  • 2 departments still have not announced new or interim leaders after long periods
  • Commissioners Court is considering duplicating a department because the first is broken.
  • 2 more heads are under pressure to leave

Here is a breakdown:

  • Commissioners Court Analysts Office (Amber Weed replaced Katie Short)
  • Commissioners Court Analysts Office (Will Janowski will reportedly replace Weed who lasted just weeks)
  • Office of County Administration (Interim Head Diana Ramirez replaced David Berry)
  • Economic Equity and Opportunity (Diana Ramirez replaced Pamela Chan)
  • Economic Equity and Opportunity (New Interim Executive Director Estella Gonzalez replaced Diana Ramirez)
  • Community Services (Interim Executive Director Thao Costis replaced Dr. Adrianne Holloway, to become the department’s sixth leader under Hidalgo.)
  • Intergovernmental and Global Affairs (Department website still shows no replacement for Ender Reed who resigned in 2021.)
  • Office of Justice and Safety (Ditto for Ana Yanez-Correa, who resigned in January 2023; no new leader announced yet.)
  • Elections Administrator’s Office (Clifford Tatum replaced Isabel Longoria. Tatum may be replaced if SB1750 passes.)
  • In the April 25 Commissioner’s Court meeting, Democrats proposed creating yet another county IT department dedicated to handling justice/law enforcement systems.
  • One department head who shall remain nameless is under pressure to leave because of alleged sexual harassment and employee intimidation.
  • Tatum is under fire in the legislature for botching the 2022 election.

But who’s keeping score?

Duplicating Rather Than Fixing a Department

In last year’s Brain Drain article, I detailed common factors that led to excessive employee turnover:

  • A toxic work culture. In terms of predicting quitting, a toxic culture is ten times more important than compensation. High turnover signals that something is seriously wrong with management or the culture.
  • The boss. According to multiple studies, most employees quit their boss, not the organization. Professionals want bosses who can teach them things and help them grow within their professions. Political appointees may not have that skill set. 
  • Negative assessments of the organization’s future and their ownEmployees’ feelings about the future can predict attrition. No one wants to be the last to the lifeboats.

Perhaps nowhere are these problems more apparent than in Universal Services, the county’s IT department. Last year, the department’s JWEB system broke down and caused the release of dozens of prisoners. That happened under a new department leader with no IT experience.

Problems with the system have reportedly continued since then, causing frustrations to mount in the law enforcement community. As a result, the County is exploring creating a new department to do what Universal Services is already supposed to be doing. See item 297 on the 4/25/2023 commissioners court agenda.

But consider several problems with this proposal:

  • There aren’t enough knowledgeable, qualified IT people to staff two departments.
  • Universal Services would have to continue hosting the system, further fragmenting responsibility.
  • Fragmentation of responsibilities undermines response time, which is the problem.

Most of these problems can be traced back to the replacement of a career professional by an unqualified political appointee. Qualified technical people then left in droves because of all the issues cited above.

I asked one person to describe how the turnover has affected system development and support. The source offered this description.

“There has been a lot of turnover in project management (PM), for instance. And, of course, there is a lag time while a new PM gets set up, learns the systems, and starts to become effective. In addition to that, PMs have to deal with tech staff turnover, since we keep losing developers and infrastructure people and positions. So, the new PM has to figure out how to find replacements from existing staff (and who to ask to find them), then negotiate to get them pulled away from other efforts to get on to their projects, and finally the PM gets tired of dealing with all of that in addition to hostile upper management and leaves for another department or another employer.”

As a result, no coding has yet been done on a highly needed justice IT system for 2.5 years. Worse yet, Universal Services reportedly hasn’t even locked down the system’s specs yet!

Property Appraisals Skyrocket with Increasing Costs

It’s not just county leaders and employees who suffer. You, the taxpayer, have to pay for:

  • Excessive personnel turnover
  • Higher recruitment costs
  • Training of replacements
  • Loss of institutional knowledge
  • Costly rookie errors
  • New employees figuring out where the toilet paper is
  • Poorer service
  • Reduced productivity

Without the ability to raise tax rates, where will money to pay for all that come from?

According to an analysis by O’Connor property tax consulting and appraisal services, Harris County is attempting to tax homeowners this year at 116.2% of the value of their properties.

More than 90% of Harris County homeowners received notices of assessed value that exceed the market value of their property.

O’Connor Property Tax Consulting

The excess assessments could cost Harris County homeowners $1,365,000,000, according to O’Connor.

A Never-Ending Story

In Hidalgo’s first 3.25 years, Harris County had 36 new department heads. During the year since then, we’ve had 10 more. In addition:

  • Four departments have leaders with “interim” in their titles.
  • Two departments may have vacancies at the top.
  • Two departments have leaders under pressure to leave.

That could soon push Hidalgo’s “turnover total” among department heads well past 50. And that will make it harder to recruit qualified talent.

Who wants a job where you measure tenure with a stopwatch?

This is what happens when you elect someone who’s never held a real job to become the CEO of a multi-billion dollar enterprise.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/13/23

2083 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Editorial: Brain Drain in Harris County Government Compromises Service, Productivity

(Updated 4/15/22 with additional information.) The high-level brain drain among department heads and their deputies in Harris County Government compromises both service and productivity.

An article in The Texan about the fiasco at Universal Services, Harris County’s IT department, discussed the department’s new CIO. A system used by law enforcement, prosecutors, and the courts went down for two days. So, a magistrate ordered the release of 280 suspects who had been held without the requisite probable cause or bond hearings. 

Those who testified about the root cause for the system outage in commissioners court cited high turnover among IT personnel and the resulting lack of institutional knowledge as two main causes. 

That got me to thinking about leadership turnover in Harris County departments. 

Earlier this year, the County announced FIVE new department heads in ONE commissioners court meeting! After my investigation, I learned that at least 16 of 20 department heads have changed under County Judge Lina Hidalgo. Some department heads have turned over more than once during Hidalgo’s time in office!

Professional Vs. Political Credentials

Turnover is a fact of life in any organization. And at the federal level, you expect department heads to change with incoming administrations. But at the county level, not so much.

At this level, holding a job should be about technical proficiency, not political affiliation. Service is about fixing things, such as potholes, drainage and flooding. Or supplying disaster relief and healthcare. Job success requires professional qualifications and experience more than political loyalty. You wouldn’t choose a heart surgeon because of his/her political affiliation. Would you?

And as one source, who needs to remain anonymous, told me, “ABRUPT change or turnover is never good. There is not adequate time for proper transfer of information, or proper handover of programs, projects, and initiatives.  When folks resign abruptly or worse yet, are let go for political reasons, there is no immediate training and there is no transfer of information on critical and important work.”

Extraordinary Turnover Among Management

I am not saying that new appointees are not talented or qualified. They may be; I just have no way of knowing. However, I will say this based on 50 years of business experience. Excessive turnover almost always lowers productivity, disrupts service, creates costly rookie errors, and leads to unnecessary replacement costs.

By any measure, Harris County has had an extraordinary amount of turnover lately – especially at high- and mid-levels. The heads of at least 16 departments out of 20 have been forced out. That’s 80%.

Many reportedly resigned under pressure. Some had worked for the county for more than 30 years under multiple administrations. Moreover, some groups in the Engineering Department have lost up to FOUR levels of management.

How High Turnover Lowers Productivity

Excessive turnover can lower productivity several ways. 

  • Finding replacements for talented employees increases recruitment and training costs, both of which are avoidable.
  • High turnover typically lowers employee morale, which affects productivity. Employees worry less about job performance than whether they will be forced out next. 
  • After employees leave, remaining staff try to shoulder extra work and may burn out due to the higher workload.
  • When new hires finally arrive after several months, teaching them how things operate distracts current employees from their own work on projects. 
  • New hires also often struggle with new responsibilities and procedures. Departing employees take all their knowledge, experience, and skills with them. While remaining employees can provide some of that, they can’t provide it all. That lowers productivity while the new employees try to figure things out.

And the more specialized the job is, the more acute “the productivity drag” usually is. The loss of a good, high-level manager can affect the productivity of a whole department.

Main Reasons Why People Quit

In addition to the people forced out, many have quit. When you look at the main reasons why people quit, they include:

  • A toxic work culture. In terms of predicting quitting, a toxic culture is ten times more important than compensation. High turnover signals that something is seriously wrong with management or the culture.
  • The boss. According to multiple studies, most employees quit their boss, not the organization. Professionals want bosses who can teach them things and help them grow within their professions. Political appointees may not have that skill set. 
  • Negative assessments of the organization’s future and their own. Employees’ feelings about the future can predict attrition. No one wants to be the last to the lifeboats.

Changes In Department Heads

At a minimum, recent changes in Harris County Department heads include:

1. Universal Services

Major General Rick Noriega replaced Bruce High, who served since 2009. According to Fox News, after taking over, Noriega reportedly lost 23 employees – in ONE group – and lied to commissioners about the number. Another source put the number in ALL groups closer to 100.

2. Flood Control:

Christina (Tina) Petersen, formerly with the Harris-Galveston Subsidence District, replaced Russ Poppe. Between Poppe and Petersen, Alan Black served as Interim Executive Director. Matt Zeve, Poppe’s second in command, resigned, as did Marcus Stuckett, Flood Control’s Director of Engineering, and Craig Maske, the District’s Chief Planning Officer. Those losses will make it more difficult for Petersen to get up to speed.

3. Engineering

Dr. Milton Rahman, PE PMP CFM ENV SP, (formerly deputy chief of staff for Commissioner Adrian Garcia) replaced John Blount, PE CFM LEED AP, as County Engineer. Blount served in the Engineering Department for 34 years under many different county judges and commissioners. According to one source who spoke on condition of anonymity, TWO group managers have been fired and SEVEN left voluntarily since Rahman took over. In some cases, FOUR levels of management are gone! My source says that Rahman wiped out all but one manager in the crucial Operations Group. 

Firings of long-term and well respected employees were done so unprofessionally, according to multiple sources, that it caused a huge impact on moral. As a result, numerous long-term employees left for higher paying jobs in  the private sector. The Engineer’s Office was always considered apolitical, working for all members of Commissioners Court equally. But no longer. Sources say Rahman has used political intimidation to transfer resources from other precincts into Garcia’s Precinct 2.

4. Public Health

Barbie Robinson from Sacramento, California replaced Umair Shah, MD, MPH. Her reviews have been mixed so far. According to one source I talked to, Ms. Robinson may still live in California. She has reportedly attended meetings via Microsoft Teams. I cannot verify how much time she spends in Houston versus Sacramento. Between Shah and Robinson, Gwen Sims served as Interim Executive Director for six months.

5. Community Services

David Turkel had served as the department’s Executive Director for more than 20 years when Daphne Lemelle replaced him in 2018. Lamelle then came under fire for failure to distribute Harvey relief funds quickly enough and for hiring Guy Rankin, the disgraced ex-head of the Harris County Housing Authority, who was fired by the County for allegedly misspending millions in Federal dollars. Josh Stuckey then became Interim Director. Dr. Adrienne Holloway then took over the department and was replaced by Thao Costis at the end of 2022. So, six leadership changes under Hidalgo.

6. Intergovernmental and Global Affairs: (No website)

According to LinkedIn, Ender Reed replaced former department director Donna Warndoff in 2020. He then took another job in the private sector in 2021. Hidalgo has not announced his replacement yet. Applications closed at the end of this March.

7. Economic Equity and Opportunity 

…is a new department proposed by Commissioner Rodney Ellis in 2020. He announced that Pamela Chan would become the department’s first executive director in 2021. That didn’t last long. According to one insider, she got “fed-up.” The new director is Diana Aguilar Ramirez.

On October 28, 2019, Jim Bethke began serving as Director of this new department. Dr. Ana Yañez-Correa replaced him less than two years later.

9. Election Administration:

This is another new office. Isabel Longoria was sworn in as Harris County’s first-ever elections administrator on Nov. 18, 2020. Lina Hidalgo lauded her experience as a community organizer. After long lines, technology glitches, understaffing, and failing to count 10,000 votes in the primary election this year, Isabel Longoria resigned on March 8. Hidalgo has not yet announced her successor.

10. Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA): 

After leading HCTRA since 2014, the well respected Gary K. Trietsch, PE, retired in 2020. Roberto Treviño, PE, replaced him. It didn’t take long for the org charts to change. All but one of seven deputy directors in the department changed under Treviño. (See before/after org charts below.) According to one long-time county insider, reorganizing a department is the quickest way to purge people whose political obedience a new manager may question.  

11. Management and Budget:

In early 2020, Harris County fired Bill Jackson in an effort led by Commissioner Adrian Garcia. Jackson had headed the department for nine years and obtained a AAA bond rating for the county through prudent financial management. But certain commissioners claimed he wasn’t transparent enough. They replaced him with Dave Berry who held the job for a little more than a year before taking another county job in 2021. Daniel Ramos, formerly a deputy city administrator for the mayor of Baltimore, MD, replaced Berry. So, again…three leaders…in just TWO years.

12. County Administration:

This is a new department formed on June 29, 2021. Dave Berry heads it and is trying to organize it. Here is his planned org chart – minus names. It just shows departments. Notice how it effectively demotes all department heads by making them report to Commissioners Court through Berry and/or a deputy county administrator. Here is Berry’s transition plan

13. Human Resources and Risk Management:

…is also a new department reporting to Berry. He broke it out of Management and Budget. It will have three divisions: Human Resources, Benefits & Wellness, and Risk Management. Neither the website, Berry’s Transition Plan, nor the department directory list a director for this new department yet.

14. Office of Sustainability (No website):

This is not a full department. It will bring together staff from different departments and Commissioner Precincts whom Berry believes are best situated to act on sustainability initiatives. Lisa Lin, new as of Jan 25, 2022, will head the office. Lin formerly worked for the Houston mayor’s office, the city of San Antonio and Rice University. 

15. Pretrial Services:

In 2021, Natalie Michailides replaced Dr. Kelvin Banks who headed the department from 2016 to December 2020.

16) Pollution Control Services

Dr. Latrice Babin replaced Bob Allen in 2019. However, she was promoted from within, having worked in the department for 25 years. Bob Allen had headed the department since 2011.

80% of Department Heads Changed

That’s 16 out of 20 departments in Berry’s transition plan. What about the other departments?

  • The leader of Forensic Sciences has been Luis Arturo Sanchez, M.D. since 2003, long before Hidalgo took office.
  • Ed Emmett, the previous county judge appointed the current Fire Marshall, Laurie Christensen, and she still heads that department.
  • Edward Melton leads the Public Library Department. A Facebook post shows he was also appointed by Ed Emmett and is still there. I can’t find much more about him.
  • David Simpson is the Executive Director of the Domestic Relations Department. He has held that position since the department’s first executive director retired in 2001. His predecessor, Nancy Westerfeld, had held that position since 1984. So, just two leaders in 38 years, according to an employee who used to work in the department.

The first 16 departments have had 34 leaders under Hidalgo. And she is looking for new leaders for at least three of those departments – Intergovernmental & Global Affairs; Human Resources & Risk Management; Election Administration – so the total could soon climb higher. Perhaps she should start with a new Human Resources & Risk Management director.

Group Heads within Departments Replaced, Too

Turnover affects people below department heads also. Take the case of the Harris County Tollroad Authority, for example. Compare the two org charts below under Trietsch and his successor, Treviño. Only one person remained as of January this year.

HCTRA Org Chart in 2019 under Trietsch. Compare with the one below.
HCTRA Org Chart under Treviño less than two years later. Everyone except Tyler has been replaced, likely affecting productivity.

These charts dramatize the change at the deputy and assistant director levels. I couldn’t find comparable charts for other departments online. However, several sources told me that in Engineering, up to four layers of management have left in some groups. Another source told me that after the effort by Garcia to oust Bill Jackson (see #11 above), the number of people who decided to leave the county increased dramatically.

Turnover Isn’t the Only Thing to Increase 

Did the replacement of 16 department heads (sometimes more than once) result in improved service? Perhaps in some cases. But look at the headlines lately:

This is what you get when you put politics above professional credentials. As one person said on condition of anonymity, “The three Democrats on commissioners court are firing just about everyone hired by a Republican and replacing them with political loyalists.” You’re paying the price.

That price includes not only service disruptions and lower productivity. It also includes replacement costs for those who leave. Cost estimates for replacing managers range from 200% to 400% of their annual salaries. If the 400% estimate is accurate and if department heads made $250,000 per year, replacing them would cost a million dollars each. And some of these departments have had two or three heads since Hidalgo. That ads up to far more money than the Elevate Strategies Covid-Outreach Scandal. So why aren’t more people talking about excessive turnover?

Add Failure and Delay of Important Initiatives to Cost

Several sources told me about the failure and delay of important initiatives. You can add the loss of time in those initiatives and the cost of potential future impacts to the replacement costs above. The initiatives include:

  • Atlas 14: With the departure of key General Services and Permit Office personnel, who has the experience or know how to assist the development community on Atlas 14 implementation and floodplain changes in the very near future?
  • Environmental and Water Quality:  Are any experts left? Who understands the state and federal laws that impact/dictate projects?
  • County Transportation Plan:
    • The Equity Study has stalled. So has a framework to implement it. There has been no movement on equity in transportation.
    • Likewise, there has been little to no movement on Vision Zero, the county’s effort to eliminate traffic fatalities.
    • There has also been little to no movement on the county’s Multimodal, Major Thoroughfare plan to improve connectivity.
    • Nothing notable has happened lately on Low Impact Development, Green Infrastructure, or other environmentally-friendly projects.

And most important, as another hurricane season approaches, no Engineering staff remain that led Disaster Recovery Operations, i.e., debris collection; monitoring; road and bridge inspections; inventorying; permitting and inspections. 

As one person said, “No transition occurred! The expertise in disaster recovery, and floodplain mapping and management have vanished over a very short period of time. The exact same thing happened at Universal Services, but not as fast and deep. We can already see the results.”

Posted by Bob Rehak on 4/14/2022 and updated on 4/15/22 and 4/20/22 with new information

1689 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.