Roll out the Red Tape

How many bureaucrats does it take to fill a pothole at a Dade County school? The author would like to tell you, but he's still counting.

When I called to thank him, the city manager confirmed that the city would do the job for $3165. But time was running short, he said. The city public works department soon would be switching to a new contract year and a new contractor, and all work of this sort would be put on hold for several months. If we wanted public works to do the paving job before summertime, Southern would need the school system's written commitment to pay for the work, and he'd need to have it in hand in time for the city council meeting at 7:30 p.m. on March 8 A his last opportunity to advise the council of plans under the current public works contract.

On February 24, armed with that estimate and mindful of the March 8 deadline, I began phoning the school system's downtown headquarters in search of $3165. In less than an hour, I learned that the Capital Improvements Committee included a woman who knew me -- Virginia Rosen, the assistant superintendent for planning and management systems. Rosen seemed delighted to hear from me, and she appeared to know exactly what to do.

She said she'd ask the district legal office for an opinion about the legality of using school-system money to pave property owned by the city. If there wasn't any legal problem, she said, we'd probably be able to use money from a capital outlay fund assigned to the regional school-system office serving Springview Elementary. But first, she said, we ought to check to see if safety funds might be available for the job. She said she'd have the safety department dispatch someone to the school.

After being told of the March 8 deadline, Rosen also promised to do whatever she could to underscore the urgency of the situation. She'd attend to it that very moment, she said, even though it was already past five o'clock -- time to rush to the gym for her daily workout.

To be doubly certain that Rosen had all the information she needed, I faxed her a letter recapping everything. I also wrote, "I don't know what we'd do without you."

At 11:00 a.m. the next morning, February 25, Calvin Slawson, a school-system safety official, met me at Springview. Together we eyeballed the potholes. He said they were indeed a safety hazard, the type of hazard that his department routinely corrected, even on property owned by other government agencies.

Slawson observed that the $3165 estimate from city Public Works was "a lot less" than the school system normally pays for such a job. Why? "Bidders know we have real deep pockets," he said.

On February 26, I received a call from Slawson's boss, Sam Ingram, director of the school system's department of safety, environment, and hazards management. Good news, he said. The school would immediately send City Manager Southern a $3165 purchase order authorizing the city to pave over the potholes.

Southern called an hour later. "Congratulations," he said.
I dashed off my note to Superintendent of Schools Octavio Visiedo. Gratitude had little to do with it. This note was a stratagem. By singling out Rosen, Slawson, and Ingram, it guaranteed that the superintendent would give each of them a pat on the back -- and that he'd lose face if anything happened to prevent an expeditious solution to the pothole problem.

On March 4, our boy Steven came home from school with a three-by-five-inch slip of paper from his principal. It bore the printed heading, "MEMO from Henry A. Ferrer." The rest was hand-written:

To: Mr. Joffee
Good news! (Thanks to you) I received a call from the CIF [Capital Improvement Force] office & was told that DCPS [Dade County Public Schools] will pay the city for the pavement in front of the school. Hope the wait is not long. Thanks again!

-- Henry
Bingo! 'd shown Ferrer that, in less than 48 hours, I could persuade his own organization to fork over money he had insisted would have to come from the Miami Springs city treasury, or worse, from our own school's financially strapped PTA. And I had him exactly where I wanted him -- not humbled, but grateful, and willing to address me as an equal.

Onward and upward to serious reform! Or so I thought.
On March 8, the city manager's move-it-or-lose-it deadline, I phoned Southern just to make sure he had the paperwork he needed to inform the city council and to proceed with the paving.

He didn't.
He faxed me what he had: not a purchase order, but a school-system "emergency purchase request (Form B)" filled in by Ingram.

I couldn't help noticing the spelling errors ("the rainey season") and malapropisms ("building [bidding] for a new contractor"). And I was particularly intrigued by a statement Ingram made in the box asking for justification of the "emergency" request: "Completion of this project by the City of Miami Springs will result in a cost saving of approximately $50,000."

Fifty grand? I deserved a medal -- or even better, a tax rebate.
Southern was concerned about the words that didn't appear on the form. Ingram had signed under "Requested by" and his boss had signed under "Recommended by," but the final signature box -- labeled "Reviewed and Approved by" -- remained blank. In other words, the city manager still needed the school system's written commitment to pay for the paving job -- and he needed it by 7:30 p.m. that very night.

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