Riegel: DPW reorganization revisted

In 2014, former Mayor Kip Holden’s administration decided the citizens of Baton Rouge would be better served if the Department of Public Works was decentralized and divided into multiple, independent departments.

The idea was to take a cumbersome, unwieldy bureaucracy that handles all the stuff in city-parish government people really care about—from traffic, drainage and garbage collection to permitting, code enforcement and grass cutting—and create smaller, more efficient departments that could better respond to the needs of citizens, small businesses and developers.

Consultants were retained to map out the ambitious reorganization and help implement the transition. Six new departments were created—maintenance, transportation and drainage, buildings and grounds, environmental services, fleet management, and development.

“Rock star caliber” administrators, as they were called, were hired to run the sleek, deconstructed departments that would rise like a phoenix from the ashes that had been DPW.

Today, four years and one mayor later, the “department formerly known as DPW” is now six, only slightly less cumbersome, unwieldy bureaucracies. Five of the six “rock stars” hired under Holden have left to seek their happiness elsewhere, and most people still don’t know what even to call the various departments that once were DPW.

Perhaps most troubling, customer service remains as foreign a concept in the “departments formerly known as DPW” as is tasteful dress on a Kardashian.

Earlier this month, I needed to talk to someone in code enforcement so I called Cary Chauvin’s office. He’s director of development, which oversees code enforcement, and knows more about the “department formerly known as DPW” than anyone at City Hall. By all accounts he also does a yeoman’s job overseeing an overworked understaffed department.

But he’s hard to reach and on this particular day no one answered at his office. I tried three more times. Still, no answer, though I got a recording that said, “the mailbox is full and cannot accept any messages.”

Perhaps most troubling, customer service remains as foreign a concept in the “departments formerly known as DPW” as is tasteful dress on a Kardashian.

Curious. This was an office line, not a cell phone. But, whatever. I decided to try the main number for the department of development. I got a recording informing me of the department’s hours of operation, which included the late-morning, mid-week hour of my call.

I called the main number again. This time, a receptionist answered. I told her I was trying to reach Cary Chauvin. She said I had to call his number. I said I had tried that multiple times, unsuccessfully. She said that was the only way to get in touch with him.

I suggested she could take a message for him? No, she said. I asked if the director of development had an assistant who could take a message for him? Yes, she said, and posited that if the assistant wasn’t answering Chauvin’s extension she must be away from her desk.

I gave up and called the code enforcement office directly. The line was busy. I tried again. It was still busy. Finally, I gave up and started writing this down because you just can’t make this stuff up.

My frustration was but a tiny taste of what developers and builders routinely experience while their projects stall as they wait months for building permits. They call Business Report frequently to complain, though they invariably decline to go on the record because they’re afraid of retribution in a city that’s too small for its own good.

Pity the poor citizen who calls 311 to complain about a garbage can gone missing or a sink hole in the street. What indignities must they endure?

This isn’t the way it was supposed to be. The idea behind the DPW reorg was to make things better but the improvements haven’t happened—yet. Part of the problem is that reorganizing DPW was a huge, difficult task that would have been challenging in the best of times. It happened at the end of Holden’s third term, arguably the worst time.

Then the August 2016 flood occurred, throwing city government into a tailspin. Then the new administration came in and had to get up to speed and try to finish making changes the prior administration had started.

Mayor Sharon Weston Broome’s administration concedes it needs to make improvements, but says several positive changes are underway.

For starters, Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Rowdy Gaudet points out that five of the six department head positions have been filled—one as recently as mid-February. These administrators are taking the reins and reinventing their departments with a focus on efficiency and customer service.

Second, an outside firm was hired late last year to do expedited building plan review and help shorten wait times in the permits office. It took the firm a while to make a dent in the backlog and logjams still occur, but Gaudet says applicants are now getting commercial building permits within two weeks on average.

Third, Broome recently created a task force to deal with blight and code enforcement issues, signaling a commitment to addressing one of the city’s biggest problems.

Finally, the administration is focused on improving customer service through its 311 hotline. Chief Administrative Officer Darryl Gissel says Broome genuinely wants to eliminate the bureaucracy of city government and make City Hall run more smoothly.

It’s encouraging the will is there. Let’s hope it translates into effectiveness because there’s really no place to go but up.  

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