Fairfax Consumer Division In Turmoil
Treatment of Workers, Spending Criticized
By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 20, 2004; Page A01
Fairfax County's watchdog agency for consumer rights has been so poorly run that some top managers falsified records, spent public money lavishly, rewarded favored employees and intimidated others who complained about the mismanagement, records and interviews show.
Interviews with more than 20 current and former employees and county officials and a review of thousands of pages of documents obtained under Virginia's open records law reveal a department that in recent years has been in turmoil with little oversight. The agency's finance director, for example, was fired this spring for running a tax business out of her office and having an aide baby-sit her son during work hours -- allegations she denies.
The problems at the Department of Cable Communications and Consumer Protection so alarmed county officials that they ordered a criminal investigation and a top-to-bottom audit, which resulted in the sudden retirement of the department's director and demotions of two other top managers, in addition to the finance director's firing.
"We had a situation here where a hostile climate had been allowed to develop, with management by intimidation," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D), who, with County Executive Anthony H. Griffin, has ordered reviews of county policies on travel, purchasing and ethics.
The problems developed even as Fairfax was winning national plaudits for management and county supervisors were slashing funds for human services, libraries and parks to balance the budget and provide relief from exploding property taxes.
It's not the first time that management failures have embarrassed Fairfax. Two embezzlements by county workers at other agencies went undetected for years and cost taxpayers more than $2.7 million.
Some supervisors said the latest failures reflect a bureaucracy grown unwieldy and hard to manage now that Fairfax has topped 1 million residents, its workforce has reached 11,500 and its budget exceeds $2.7 billion. Similar problems could become harder to prevent and detect as Washington's largest suburb continues to grow, some supervisors worry. County officials need to improve oversight and their methods of reporting problems, they said.
"You've got the problem of one county executive trying to oversee thousands of people," said Supervisor Elaine N. McConnell (R-Springfield), who went to Griffin about the consumer protection office after employees complained to her. "Department heads need to be more accountable. Something's wrong with the system when one department can go completely to pieces and nobody knew it."
McConnell said 18 employees told her independently of their concerns and said that agency managers and county personnel officials either ignored them or somehow retaliated against them. The climate was one of "total intimidation by managers whose motive was power," McConnell said. She called the problems symptomatic of a system where rank and file workers have nowhere to go to report mismanagement.
Indeed, with 120 employees and an annual budget of $31 million, the department is typical within the county bureaucracy. It has a high profile, however, overseeing such crucial services as the regulation of cable television. It is also where residents go to seek protection from high utility rates, gouging by landlords and contractors and poor cable service.
Griffin said he dealt with the problem immediately and forcefully. But he acknowledged that a bureaucracy as large as Fairfax's requires him to give managers latitude and discretion. "We try not to micromanage," he said. Rather than poor oversight, the problems "related to human relations" issues and could have occurred anywhere, he said. However, Griffin is updating the county's ethics code, unchanged since the 1960s, in part because of the audit.
He also said a regulation in the county's personnel code protects employees who complain about their bosses. But one manager in the department was demoted for violating that rule, he said.
'An Ugly Time'
As director of the cable and consumer protection department since 1978, Ronald B. Mallard, 58, led an agency whose public profile grew as the county's cable provider, Cox Communications, launched a rocky upgrade that prompted thousands of service complaints. Yet many on Mallard's staff and some county officials perceived him as a disengaged manager who often arrived at the office late and left early.
After the audit, Griffin forced Mallard to retire or face suspension, high-level county sources said. Mallard stepped down May 14 after 31 years with the county. He said that he wasn't forced out and that his departure "was purely my decision."
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