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Blindsided: What Should You Do? Part I

Don Menzel

Suppose you are the administrator of wealthy, upscale county with a strong record of good governance. In fact, you have been the county administrator for 14 years and have garnered the respect and admiration of the Board of County Commissioners, good government citizen groups, and the local media. You view yourself as a person with high ethical standards and take pride in your organization’s performance in getting the job done at an affordable price. You also take pride in your progressive management style that delegates responsibility to your top managers whom you hold accountable.

Your county has a model code of ethics and you trust your management team to be exemplars. You have every reason to feel comfortable with the ethical culture that pervades the 2,000 member workforce until…all h____ breaks out! The local newspaper publishes a story about a 55 year old project manager in the public works department for accepting some $15,000 in cruises, hotel stays, gift cards and other kickbacks from a company whose contract he helped supervise.

As the scandal unfolds other misdeeds are alleged. County supervisors are reported to “piggyback” contracts—that is, opt for the same deal another local government had with a company thus allowing county administrators to avoid putting contracts out to bid. Procurement managers also practiced “change orders” where a contract is bid for specific terms only to be altered at points along the way, with extra work and pay added. The “change orders” practice would allow favored companies to come in at unrealistically low bids. Topping off the string of procurement problems was the fact that administrators and supervisors could use county issued credit cards to purchase products that would ordinarily be put out to be if they exceeded $10,000. In other words, credit cards could be used to “break” a payment into several parts whose sum would exceed the $10,000 limit.

As the county administrator you are shocked to learn of these practices. You say to yourself, “Frankly, either I have failed personally or I feel abandoned by the entire management team, in the sense that my business and personal ethics appear to have not been translated into the culture of at least one operation.” What would you do? Should you start cleaning house by firing a number of managers? Should you accept responsibility and resign? Should you fashion a memo to your top managers admonishing them to “fix the problems or resign?” All of the above?

Source: Based on an actual set of events. See stories published in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune

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