The State Worker

The State Worker: Email illustrates all eyes on government

The anonymous email said that Caltrans employees had recently scheduled a barbecue and golf tournament under the guise of a “safety meeting’ at Land Park.

File attachments showed a homemade flier soliciting dishes for a food contest and an intradepartmental email sent out on Sept. 17 at 6:53 a.m.: “(I)f you’re interested in joining a few of us for golf after the off-site safety meeting next week please let me know by COB today as I am making the foursomes and reservations today!”

The tipster even included five pages from Caltrans’ policy manual that explains in excruciating detail how often employees must attend a safety meeting and what the meetings should cover. A Bee analysis of the document found no mention of barbecues, food contests or golf.

To the tipster it sounded outrageous. But hold your judgment and ask this question: How nicely should government treat its employees?

Now here’s the rest of the story.

Caltrans sanctioned the off-site safety meeting that was held last Tuesday, according to department spokesman Matt Rocco. It’s an annual event that the Division of Local Assistance holds to say thanks to its 88 employees. It’s not like we’re talking an opulent affair at Pebble Beach. This was at a public park and a public golf course where it’s $29.50 max for an 18-hole tee time on a weekday.

The nine employees who stuck around for golf after the meeting burned leave time with the permission of their superiors. Salaried employees, who can take time off only in full-day increments, had to use eight hours of leave to play a few hours on the links.

And division managers, Rocco said, each chipped in $80 of their own money for facilities rental and catered food from Buckhorn Grill.

“It sounds like the real story is the opposite of what the tipster gave you,” said Paul Harvey, an associate professor of management at the University of New Hampshire.

But this is the era of heightened scrutiny, he said. Investors are on the lookout for the next Bernard Madoff, the next Enron. The spotlight on government is even more intense because every taxpayer and employee is a potential tipster.

“It’s human nature to be more critical of spending when it’s your money being spent,” Harvey said, but the potential for unfair condemnation can keep public employers from treating their employees better. Who needs the headache when it’s easier to hold the safety meeting at the office?

This isn’t a call for laissez-faire government. Excesses flourish when no one is watching the state board or the company boardroom. While the tip in this case didn’t pan out, a lot of front-page stories come from tips that prove true.

Ideally, we’d all work in a happy middle ground, Harvey said, but extra examination goes with spending public money. Sometimes that’s not fair.

“That probably should be something people take into account,” Harvey said, “when they consider a public career.”