Palmer defends department changes

My turn

Posted: Sunday, March 05, 2000

It's impossible to respond to every inaccurate headline or editorial, but I just can't let your March 1, 2000 editorial go by without a response.

Your editorial indicates the decision to privatize health and social services is the right one, but the process was flawed. The result of that flawed process is ``workers get the shaft,'' says the Empire. Well, the notification and communication certainly could have been better, but it's not for want of trying.

The Assembly's Finance Committee met on Wednesday night and adjourned into executive session, a common practice allowed by state law. The meeting was advertised in the Empire. The Finance Committee heard reports from staff regarding the proposed changes to the Health and Social Services Department, including a candid assessment of financial and personnel claims, risks and strategies. We try to keep executive sessions to a minimum, but sometimes we owe the taxpayers and our employees discretion more than we owe them news. The following day, we prepared press releases and assembled budgetary information and I contacted members of the media, including the Empire.

In an effort to have an orderly release of accurate information, and at the same time, give employees the courtesy of hearing the plans first, I scheduled a press briefing for 1 p.m. on Thursday. Your reporter pleaded with me to make the briefing earlier so the radio stations would not ``scoop'' the Empire. Since all media representatives agreed not to break the story until after the employee meeting, I agreed to move the briefing up to 9 a.m. as a courtesy to your newspaper.

Before the briefing, your reporter, and those from the radio stations agreed the story would not break before the 3:30 p.m. scheduled employee meeting. Just to make sure the employees would hear from me before the media, I moved the staff meeting up to 3 p.m.. It turns out, it didn't matter, because your paper broke the agreement it made and put the front-page story on the street as early as 2 p.m. Employees showed up at the staff meeting justifiably livid that the news was in the paper before I met with them.

Not only did the Empire violate the agreement, it invited itself to the staff meeting. A staff meeting is not a public meeting and the Empire had no right to be at the meeting. Having just been violated by the paper, I asked that the press leave the meeting. When it was clear that the employees wanted the media at the meeting I agreed to allow reporters to stay.

I started the meeting with a heartfelt apology and took responsibility for trusting the Empire to live up to its word. In retrospect, I can see although my intentions were honorable, I should not have put as much trust in the process as I did.

The March 1 editorial focuses on procedural issues of notice and timing, which is important particularly for the news media. However, the Empire failed to come to grips with the substantive decision to move social services from the public sector to the private sector. On this difficult issue your readers were given little more than market platitudes and an airy aside that it was ``probably ... the right move.''

At the employee's staff meeting, I emphasized several times social services are not being eliminated. Some existing employees will move to other city jobs and others will likely move to the private sector. The clients of Health and Social Services do not disappear and neither will the services they use. We are structuring a very orderly transition from city to private providers. These providers are quoted in your earlier articles indicating they are ready and willing to assume the caseload. To my knowledge, Juneau is the only city in the state of Alaska providing direct client services. This transition is consistent with other jurisdictions.

We are eliminating duplication in billing, administration, insurance, maintenance and other overhead. Although this was covered at the meeting, the Empire failed to report to readers that the result of this transfer is more money for services and less money for overhead.

The Empire accurately reported that employees complained about the short notice of the change. The time for transition is, at the earliest, between July 1 and Sept. 30 for the mental health components, probably later for others. So, the shortest notice of any layoff will be four months, but that point is lost to the readers as well.

The projected deficit in the Department of Health and Social Services is over a million dollars for next year and even worse for the year after that. There's no relief in sight. That deficit is paid with taxpayer dollars. There simply is no option but to become more efficient, and that's what is happening.

David R. PalmerCity Manager, City and Borough of Juneau

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