Consultant: 'Dysfunctional' Douglas Co. road department need fix

Communication and control are the keys to changing the climate at Douglas County's "dysfunctional" highway department, according to report presented by consultant Jeff Thompson last week.

Communication and control are the keys to changing the climate at Douglas County's "dysfunctional" highway department, according to report presented by consultant Jeff Thompson last week.

Douglas County Highway Commissioner Paul Halverson said the overall tone of the evaluation was positive.

"It's something that's going to be worked on," he said. "There will be improvements made."

The assessment, commissioned at the request of Halverson, noted department employees appreciated improved facilities and more efficient equipment now available, but morale was extremely low. On a scale of 1 to 10 -- 10 the highest -- the average morale rating for hourly employees was 2.82, Thompson stated. He traced the source to a lack of open and effective leadership and a small group of disgruntled employees who take the job for granted.

"Even the most positive employees in the department have indicated they are actively looking for work elsewhere because of the tension and stress created on a daily basis in the work culture," he wrote, adding many former employees left the department to escape the "dysfunctional atmosphere."


Rich Thompson, a member of the Douglas County Highway Committee, said the evaluation was long overdue.

"It's a much-needed thing," he said. "I've been requesting something like this for a couple years now."

The study included 16 recommendations to move the department in a more positive direction.

"There's some things management needs to do and there's a lot of things employees need to do," Halverson said. "It's not all one-sided. It's definitely some of both."

Although it was fairly critical, it gave the department a starting point to fix current problems, said Douglas County Administrator Steve Koszarek. "This isn't a matter of who was wrong, but where do we go from here to make it better.

While disciplined structure is necessary in the workplace, the consultant indicated, an autocratic leadership style will always make workers feel unappreciated.

Those in leadership positions -- Halverson and Patrol Superintendent Keith Armstrong -- need training in how to effectively communicate and value people, the study recommended.

The study also questioned the involvement of the highway committee.


"There has been a history in this department, of governance (board) mixing with management as it relates to the department," the consultant wrote. If employees know they can discuss department issues with committee members, Thompson noted, it can result in divided allegiances and cause conflict.

John 'Jack' O'Brien, highway commission member, echoed that sentiment.

"I don't think we committee people should get involved," he said. "We're there to back management with what they want to do money-wise."

The committee should be focused on the big picture -- improving roads -- not on "penny-ante" items, he said.

One small item that became a heated issue this year was the lack of bottled water at satellite garages, an estimated $500 expense. Some board members pushed to add the expense to the budget while Halverson expressed concerns over micromanagement. The dispute led to hours of discussion at the highway committee level and was aired before the full county board.

O'Brien said he felt Thompson's evaluation was a little too critical of management.

"Paul is stubborn," he said. "On the other hand, he's management. When do (workers) start telling management what to do?"

Another recommendation was to have employees give their input on how to make the environment safer and more efficient for a biennial audit.


Concerns over workers putting in 16-hour shifts on a regular basis were also raised.

"Typically, I observe most safety-related near misses and work-related accidents taking place when employees have been working long hours for extended periods of time," he wrote.

The department had two on-site accidents this year. Two employees were injured and two county dump trucks totaled when they hit each other head on during reconstruction of County Highway A near Solon Springs on Aug. 24. On Oct. 16, a semi-tractor collided with county road construction equipment on State Highway 35 near Dairyland, injuring two employees and destroying a paver worth nearly $300,000.

Thompson recommended better oversight and monitoring of the potential for fatigue caused by long hours on the job. Other recommendations included safety training, strategic planning for summer and winter projects, employee performance evaluations, and a zero-tolerance policy for known safety violations.

Thompson questioned the county's decision to perform a majority of the paving when private contractors are in the business for that purpose. He wrote a cost analysis should be done to assure it is the most cost-effective approach.

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