Politically Tone Deaf

George Burgess, the county manager, hits a sour note

This past Tuesday, June 22, Miami-Dade County Manager George Burgess announced his selection of a new director for the Corrections and Rehabilitation Department: Charles McRay, a 27-year department veteran. "While we hit a little bump in the road," he told county commissioners, "I make this recommendation with total confidence."

Some bump. It was more like a head-on collision, and it ejected Burgess's top candidate, forced him to settle for his second choice, and made him look unprepared and politically inept.

When Burgess sent out a memo May 28 declaring his intention to hire out-of-towner Tom Allison as the new corrections director, he noted that problems at the agency were "of great concern to me."

They should be. Building officials last year declared the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center an "unsafe structure," overtime costs run rampant, ethnic divisions among employees have carved up the place into warring camps, and cases handled by the internal-affairs unit were so mismanaged that the investigators themselves called for the removal of their chief, which they got.

But as events played out, it became apparent Burgess was treating the department the way it has always been treated -- as an afterthought. The manager rushed through the selection process for a new director and didn't take the time to do his homework. He foisted Allison, an unknown candidate, on an uninformed county commission without having first built support among individual commissioners, the union representing corrections officers, and other employee groups. And he failed to uncover controversies in Allison's past. The result: Burgess has blown his chance to remake the place.

McRay, a former deputy director of corrections, has been running the department on an interim basis for twelve months. He may make a fine director, I don't know yet. I do know that for years he's been part of the command structure of a seriously flawed agency, so it's hard to see him suddenly becoming a reformer. Which is why Burgess originally wanted someone from outside the department.

This past February the manager began a national search for a new director after Lois Spears retired in June 2003. From that search Burgess selected Allison, an adjunct professor at the University of Kansas's School of Social Welfare who had previously headed the corrections systems in Florida's Orange and Alachua counties. "After interviewing Tom and following up with his references it became clear that he possesses a very progressive view on corrections and rehabilitation issues," Burgess wrote in his May 28 memo announcing the selection.

Even under the best of circumstances, Allison would have been a tough sell. He was an outsider, a priority for Burgess. But the union representing corrections officers -- the Police Benevolent Association -- didn't like that. Past directors imported from outside have been "bitter disappointments," according to the PBA's Peter Newman. In addition Allison was white. There hasn't been a white corrections director in more than twenty years; many black employees see no reason why that should change. And Allison had never been a corrections officer himself. "He didn't come up through the ranks and that concerns me," says Commissioner Joe Martinez, who chairs the public safety committee, which oversees corrections.

Those objections weren't the only obstacles. Burgess would also pay a high price for keeping everyone in the dark.

"Once I knew this guy was on the shortlist I started checking him out," says Cory Barney, president of the Organization of Minority Corrections Employees, who distributed newspaper articles he found online.

"The PBA was never consulted," Newman adds. "So we called the PBA in Orange County." Soon the union's fax machine was humming. Before long, so many copies of Orlando Sentinel articles were being passed around you would have thought the paper published a bulldog edition in Miami.

The articles chronicled Allison's stormy tenure as chief of Orange County's jail system from 1988 to 1997. In 1990 he fought off attempts to unionize corrections officers. In 1994 a secretary complained Allison was performing outside consulting work on county time and took an expense-paid trip to Texas from a potential vendor. That prompted an administrative investigation that determined Allison improperly used his secretary to do private work, that he "created a hostile work environment" by regularly using profanity, and that he improperly accepted a gift from a vendor. His county bosses suspended him for five days. That, in turn, led to a criminal investigation by the sheriff's department to determine if any unlawful-compensation laws had been broken. He was cleared in 1995. In 1996 an Orange County commissioner accused Allison of lying about jail expenditures following some controversial spending plans and called for his resignation. A year later he was forced to step down.

The problem, according to a deputy county administrator in Orange County, was not Allison's job performance -- he was credited with being an innovative leader. It was his behavior.

Burgess's memo hinted at none of this.

A week after announcing his selection, the manager went before the county commission for final approval. Prior to the June 8 meeting Burgess thought it was a slam-dunk appointment. Instead he got stuffed at the net.

His fumbling united the sometimes fractious corrections officers, who filled the commission chambers whispering about the Sentinel articles. Just before Allison's candidacy was to come up for vote, Burgess timidly asked that it be deferred because "there is a lot of information flying around right now."

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