Friday, August 6, 2010

Oakland City Employee Defends $165,500 Salaries for City Managers

An Oakland City employee posted in support of Brooke Levin, Assistant Public Works Director, complaining that the We Fight Blight article describing problems with the tree services program was unfair to Ms. Levin. The employee also strongly supported Ms. Levin's $165,500 salary, which keep in mind is only $10,000 less than the Governor of California. The email, which appears to be from a high level employee at the City, reflects just how out of touch Oakland City staff and managers are when it comes to bloated employee salaries, customer service, and accountability, particularly with the City facing an unprecedented financial crisis and laying off 80 police.

According to City records, Brooke Levin has been working with, and for, the Public Works Department for the past 19 years. Ms. Levin started with the City of Oakland in 1991 as an aide to Mayor Elihu Harris, focusing on Public Works and Planning issues. From 1994 until 2004, she was the Public Work's Environmental Services Manager, overseeing the city's watershed, environmental compliance, recycling, solid waste, and sustainability program. In March of 2004, Ms. Levin was appointed as the Interim Assistant Public Works Director, with responsibility for the maintenance of streets and sidewalks, and the city's buildings and vehicle fleet Ms. Levin is now the Assistant Public Works Director and oversees the tree services program, among other responsibilities. She has also served as the Acting Public Works Director in the absence of the current Director. Ms. Levin has a base salary of $165,500 per year and has a retirement benefit of 2.7% at 55. This means Ms. Levin could retire at 55 and, assuming 20 years of service at the City of Oakland, would be entitled to a retirement of $89,370 per year for the remainder of her life.

The post from the city employee is in reference to the We Fight Blight Post, City of Oakland: Mismanaged, Incompetent and Unfit to Serve Residents?

Dear Editor: I think this article is very unfair to Ms. Levin. I am neither a friend of nor an employee of Ms. Levin. I do, however, know of her work ethic, her dedication and the high standards to which she holds herself and her staff.

Brooke Levin, Deputy Public Works Director
Your reader speaks of Ms. Levin's incompetence with the Tree Services Division. However, your reader was remiss in not noting that Ms. Levin assumed responsibility for the Tree Division just 2 months ago. I don't know about you, but it seems a little unreasonable to expect an executive level manager to know the in's and out's of a new division in that short period of time. Furthermore, a reasonable individual would not expect a senior manager like Ms. Levin to be personally apprised of the status of every tree in Oakland. That's what databases and first line staff should know. To direct such micro-level questions to an assistant director is synonymous with asking the CFO of a mid-sized company whether he knew what the Company paid on their last phone bill!

As I said before, I am neither a friend nor a foe of Ms. Levin. All I know from regular observation is: MS. BROOKE LEVIN IS ONE OF THE MOST DEDICATED, TALENTED, HARD WORKING, CITY EMPLOYEE WE'VE GOT and the City is lucky to have her. As for her pay, how would you compensate an employee who runs a 300-person organization (approx.) but still responds to emails and phone calls at 2 or 3am in the morning? Does your reader work that tirelessly at his job?

Look, the bottom line is this: as public servants, we are tasked to assist a constituent courteously regardless of his/her attitude, viewpoints, or agenda. Most people recognize we are people too and therefore, are by no means perfect. They appreciate us when we do the best we can. A very small minority (perhaps your reader?) will choose to attack with criticism and insults and will not be appeased no matter what we do. By writing this, I hope those who read this article will see that this most public attack on Ms. Levin is misguided. ~ Anonymous City Employee
We think this city employee is sadly misguided and woefully out of touch with reality. First of all, Ms. Levin has been working with, and for, the Public Works Department for 19 years and has managed the streets and sidewalks in the City for the last six years. She has had plenty of opportunity to become familiar with the requirements for street trees. Street trees affect sidewalks, right?. In Oakland, haven't you ever walked down the buckled and crumbling liability we call sidewalks. Many are in this condition due to inappropriate trees planted by the City of Oakland.

For Ms. Levin to have little to no understanding of the tree services program within Public Works after working with and in the Department for 19 years says a lot about the lack of coordination among managers within Public Works and the lack of initiative on Ms. Levin's part to understand how other programs in the Department function. Now that Ms. Levin is responsible for street trees, and there have been significant questions raised by the public over the mismanagement of the street trees program, one would think Ms. Levin would have at least read and understood the city's tree ordinances and reviewed the status of the program with relevant city staff before meeting with our reader. Isn't that a legitimate managerial responsibility?

Ms. Brooke and Ms. Lin, the Deputy City Administrator, who both met with our reader have yet to answer the most basic of his questions: who owns the trees the City was cutting down? This is fundamental as it governs the public process required by City law to remove the trees? As well, the City Arborist brought to the meeting by Ms. Levin could not answer the question. When directly asked by our reader who owned the public right of way that contained the sidewalk, the tree well and the tree, Ms. Levin could not answer the question and did not offer to find the answer for our reader. This is the response the public gets, after Ms. Levin has managed the streets and sidewalks in Oakland for over six years (we won't even get into her responsibility for a repaving cycle of 85 years and third world conditions of our roads and sidewalks).

We agree with the city employee that Ms. Levin is not expected to know the status of every single tree in the City, but that is not what our reader was asking. We do, however, expect her to be an expert in her area of management, and we expect her to be responsive to the public (which includes our reader). This means figuring out the answers to legitimate questions posed by residents and finding out the legal status of the two trees in context of the tree ordinances before meeting with our reader. So we invite either Ms. Levin or Ms. Lin to answer the question.

Regarding Ms. Levin's salary, the Executive Director for Caltrans, Cindy McKim, has responsibility for maintenance and operation of 50,000  lane miles throughout the state, a budget of more than $13.8 billion and responsibility for 22,000 employees, and is actually paid less than Ms. Levin due to state budget furloughs. Additionally, the Executive Director for Caltrans has a retirement benefit of 2% at 55. Assuming 20 years of service with the state, McKim would get a retirement benefit of only $66,000 compared to Ms. Levin's $89,370. So how is it that Ms. Levin's salary is appropriate for her level of responsibility when other public officials with far more responsibility are paid less? You can see state worker salaries at the Sac Bee.

Residents in the city are tired of paying for bloated city salaries, especially at the expense of public safety, and especially when there is poor customer service from city executives who do not understand the laws and programs they are responsible for implementing, when their management and oversight of staff and department functions is questionable, and who get upset when held accountable by knowledgeable members of the public. We are sure it is uncomfortable for some city employees to have the spotlight shined on city operations and when they are held publicly accountable for their performance. However, since the City of Oakland has been so poorly managed and the customer service lacking in many respects, contributing to crumbling infrastructure and the City's current financial crisis, perhaps what is needed to ensure the public gets what it pays for is to hold its managers and executives publicly accountable.

What will be telling is how, when and whether Ms. Levin and Ms. Lin actually addresses the concerns of our reader. To date, they have both failed to answer the most basic question: Who owns the trees? To date they have failed to ensure that when trees are cut down the City follows local, state and federal laws. To date, they have failed to substantively address the issues raised by our reader. Perhaps our anonymous city employee who so eagerly defended Ms. Levin and her $165,500 salary can tell us.  We are only talking about two trees here. This cannot be so difficult for Ms. Levin and Ms. Lin, who collectively make $285,000, or can it?

Perhaps with a new Mayor and City Administrator there will be some significant housecleaning and an emphasis on transparency, quality customer service, and knowledgeable and responsive management.