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.
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.
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.
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:
- Public health is in shambles.
- Purchasing has been rocked by scandal.
- Flood Control work has slowed down.
- Engineering initiatives, such as Fix Flooding First, have not achieved results since the departure of the people heading them.
- Felons are being released on the streets because of computer screw ups.
- Violent crime is surging off the charts.
- Money has been diverted from HCTRA that didn’t need to be.
- Wait times in the last election were intolerable, deadlines were missed, equipment didn’t work, and thousands of votes didn’t get counted.
- This list goes on.
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.