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Water Cut Off

[whitespace] Mark LaPlaca and Lori Toner
George Sakkestad

What's Good for the Goose: Mark LaPlaca and Lori Toner have owned up to their mistakes. Will water department managers own up to theirs?

Water department management had to resort to paid spies to catch two employees taking too much personal time--when they should have known about it all along.

By John Yewell

IT STARTED SOMETIME last December. The positive office climate among employees at the Santa Cruz Water Department that had developed over a decade began to give way to an unexplained chill. Office workers would notice managers hidden for hours behind closed doors. Mark LaPlaca and Lori Toner, the city's only meter readers, with 10 and 12 years respectively on the job, began to suspect something was wrong. They had no idea just how wrong.

The Santa Cruz water system stretches from 41st Avenue in Capitola throughout the city of Santa Cruz and up the coast to (but not including) Davenport. It has some 88,000 customers and 24,000 meters divided among about 100 routes, with an average of about 300 meters to read per reader per day. Reading meters is a lot like delivering the mail--entering yards, being outdoors in all kinds of weather and essentially working on your own. As the years pass, you get to know where every meter is and become familiar with each route. If you're unsupervised, it can become easy to yield to the temptation to use the extra time for personal business.

Then one day you find yourself racing through your route so you can take an extra-long break. That fix-it job in the bathroom requires some special parts, and you need at least an hour at the hardware store. Pretty soon, taking the personal time becomes routine. You do it because you can and because, for the most part, the work gets done. You know what the rule book says, but hey, as long as management doesn't seem to care--and evidently they don't, because nobody seems to be looking--why not?

This sense of job security is easy to fall into, and yet so deceptively false, that if you're not careful, it can get you canned.

Which was what was about to happen to Mark LaPlaca and Lori Toner.

I Spy

THINGS STARTED TO go south last March 3, when LaPlaca and Toner say they were approached by Santa Cruz Water Department customer service manager Janie Schuyler (pronounced "Sky-ler") and told they would be meeting separately two days later with management. Schuyler advised them that they should bring their union representative, because it would be an investigative meeting.

Also at the March 5 meeting would be Jim Bass, president of the Santa Cruz City Service Employees International Union, Local 415; water department utility supervisor Marilyn DeMartini; and a department analyst with the Pynchonesque name of Willow Citron.

Whatever this was about, the two meter readers thought they had experience on their side. Their annual personnel reviews were good, and they were well liked and respected by their co-workers. In hindsight, they should have been more apprehensive, but management was playing this one close to the chest.

The interviews, according to letters from Schuyler to both workers dated March 17, began with a definition of duties, putting the workers on record as understanding what their responsibilities were. Then, piece by piece, management began to build its case. There were unexplained gaps in their meter readings, said Schuyler, and at the same time the two were unable to complete all their assigned tasks without outside help. What were they doing with that time? According to the letters, LaPlaca was asked if he liked visiting thrift stores. Toner was confronted with a detailed list of time discrepancies between her meter readings. Then the big hammer fell.

At a cost of $4,000 (a figure that water department director Bill Kocher later gave to Metro Santa Cruz), surveillance specialists from Perez Investigations, a San Jose firm, had trailed the two on three dates: Jan. 14, 15 and 22. Toner and LaPlaca had been caught on videotape making unexplained stops. Toner visited a private residence and did some grocery shopping; LaPlaca had a penchant for browsing thrift stores. Hours of city time were involved. Minute-by-minute surveillance reports had been prepared.

After the meeting, Toner and LaPlaca seemed somewhat relieved. They still had their jobs, and no one had said that anything worse was in the offing.

But there was. On March 17, the two were called in from their routes and handed letters from Schuyler placing them on paid administrative leave, effective immediately. The letter made detailed allegations and charged the two with "falsification of timecards" and "theft, unauthorized use or misuse of city property." These, read the "Notice of Intent to Terminate" letters, were terminable offenses.

They were busted.

Mark LaPlaca
George Sakkestad

What Have You Done for Me Lately? When it came time to can him, Mark LaPlaca's excellent job performance reviews didn't matter.

Dead to Rights

'THE CHARGES WERE substantially correct," admits LaPlaca, and Toner agrees. Both dispute certain details and the suggestion that their personal on-the-clock activities were as pervasive as management's letters and other documentation claim. The use of "substantially" gives one the feeling they're going a little easy on themselves, although they are clearly contrite. For now, both are more concerned about their futures than their pasts. In the student-and-tourist economy of Santa Cruz County, replacing a $17.27-an-hour paycheck is not easy.

LaPlaca is married, with a 5-1/2-year-old daughter and a year-and-a-half-old son. He also pays child support for a 16-year-old son from his first marriage. Toner is a single mom of a 14-year-old son. Both are still looking for work and concerned about how exposure in a newspaper could possibly help them now. Still, they cooperate. They seem to be eager for somebody to understand what happened to them.

"It's a terrible thing," Toner admits. "I know I was wrong."

Other than addiction to dangerous narcotics, few bad habits form overnight. Anyone who has ever rushed home during the workday to check on a child or done a bit of on-the-clock grocery shopping because after-work family obligations leave little time for it--or gone to the dentist in the afternoon because it was the only appointment available--can understand how someone starts down that slippery slope.

"Look at every other employee in the city who has a field job," Toner says. "Go to the bank on Friday and see how many city trucks are there."

It sounds like sour grapes, but there's no denying that LaPlaca and Toner think they deserved another chance--despite the videotapes, surveillance reports and meter-reading records suggesting that management had a case. Those documents show that Toner and LaPlaca had ignored rules about break and lunch times and written in summaries on their timecards that were not a true reflection of their work time. Case documents show frequent and lengthy gaps in meter reading times over many months. Toner and LaPlaca admitted to Metro Santa Cruz that they took excessive personal time on the clock at least two or three days a week each.

Neither Bill Kocher nor union officials would discuss Toner's and LaPlaca's cases. But in his April 1 termination letter to LaPlaca, Kocher writes that "frequently, 1-1/2 to 3 hours per day ... cannot be accounted." In his letter to Toner, Kocher writes of her "spending up to two and three hours in a workday on personal business, using the city vehicle for personal use."

The thing that probably did them in was the city's assertion that they needed help from other department employees to finish their routes. "[T]wo of your co-workers were able to read routes when needed on a temporary basis, and still have time to go back to their regular jobs," wrote Schuyler in her March 17 letter. "This, in fact, was one of the reasons I began looking at how your time was being spent."

Schuyler writes in her March 17 letter that over the period from July 1998 to February 1999, 18 percent of all the meter readings were conducted by department employees other than LaPlaca and Toner. Toner and LaPlaca say this figure doesn't account for routine job obligations as well as time off for workers' comp claims and sick leave.


Hand-Held Job

THE TERMINATION LETTERS, taken together, were damning. Yet the investigation itself revealed that management for years had at its fingertips information that it believed showed that Toner and LaPlaca had developed poor work habits and had done nothing about it--suggesting that these habits were possibly encouraged by benign supervisorial neglect. In addition, the two employees had plenty of reason to believe they were doing their jobs to the satisfaction of their superiors.

Through documentation acquired by Metro Santa Cruz and an analysis of the SEIU/city contract and labor policies, it is possible to partially reconstruct the situation faced by the workers and their managers.

Since the early 1990s, the water department has used hand-held devices to record meter readings. The devices not only record water usage, but also note the precise time and date the readings were taken. At the end of each day, according to Toner and LaPlaca, the readers return to the office, download the readings into department computers and print out the information for safekeeping in case the electronic data are lost. In essence, Toner and LaPlaca were making an electronic record of their every move. If LaPlaca hung out in a thrift store for an hour between readings, the gap was noted. Kocher disputes that the information was printed out daily but admits that the information itself was readily available.

These daily "Route Detail Reports," say LaPlaca and Toner, were filed in the department office. Had management acted--and there is no way to know whether they were long aware of what was going on and simply chose not to--they might have put a stop to it, suspended LaPlaca and Toner before coming to the point of firing them and saved the taxpayers money--both in lost productivity and in hiring an outside investigator.

Lori Toner
George Sakkestad

Lingering Doubts: Lori Toner wonders why there was no warning from management--and why the union didn't fight harder to save her job.

Moniker's Story

OTHER SYSTEM CHECKS designed to detect problems were also apparently ignored:

*The time sheets the two employees were accused of falsifying had to be signed off on by a supervisor, presumably to verify their accuracy.

*Annual performance reviews acquired by Metro Santa Cruz reveal that LaPlaca and Toner got positive evaluations year after year.

Neither of these was supposed to be a mere academic exercise, but Kocher admits that supervision was conducted on an as-needed basis. "If there was no reason to believe anything improper was going on, people were allowed to do their work in the field," Kocher says.

But the contract between the city and the SEIU, known as the Memorandum of Understanding, requires that supervisors "make every attempt to address performance issues in a timely manner throughout the evaluation period and provide appropriate feedback to employees on an ongoing basis."

That is a definition of "progressive discipline," which is the foundation of most union contracts. It is designed to detect and deal swiftly with problems to maintain efficiency and to try to avoid having to fire people. The exceptions to it are cases of unforeseeable, gross misconduct, which can be construed as "terminable" offenses--although there is no definition of this term in either the MOU or city personnel policy. Other troublesome expressions, such as "timely manner," also often defy definition.

What Toner and LaPlaca did was not sudden; the activities they were accused of may well have gone on for years. Whether or not it was gross misconduct, it seems to have been foreseeable.

Once they realized the meter-reading records revealed the behavior to have been long-term, water department managers had a dilemma on their hands. It was in their best interest to portray the alleged gross misconduct by Toner and LaPlaca as unforeseeable, in order to explain why the problem had apparently been overlooked for so long. Once "unforeseeable" was established, the grossness of the misconduct would stand on its own and the ill-defined "terminable offense" moniker would stick, allowing management to skirt progressive discipline.

Otherwise, they would have to explain their own failure to properly supervise and their case would fall apart, like a disciplinary house of cards.

Blissful Ignorance

'I HAVE SPOKEN to your Customer Service Manager and your immediate supervisor," wrote Kocher in his April 1 termination letters to LaPlaca and Toner, "and both of them indicated they were not aware of the types of abuse of leave, starting times and use of city vehicles for personal use as they discovered from the surveillance." The letter describes the information gathered during the investigation as "a fairly recent revelation."

Both the March 17 Intent to Terminate and the April 1 Termination letters attempt to absolve department managers of responsibility for supervising their employees. Kocher's April 1 letter dismisses the workers' positive annual reviews as "a reflection of your supervisor's belief you were respectful of the rules and regulations," ignoring that the workers had a right to rely on those evaluations as endorsement of their work habits. Supervisors do have a contractual obligation to, well, supervise.

Both letters say that field personnel, and in particular water meter readers, must work "independently" or "in the public view" with "very little" (the March 17 letter says "without") supervision--language that appears to be in conflict with the city/SEIU contract.

Kocher says spot checks on the routes were performed, but if they were, LaPlaca and Toner say they were never disciplined as a result. Neither Toner nor LaPlaca recalls ever encountering a supervisor conducting an inspection on a route--a common practice in the postal service.

In an interview, Kocher declined to estimate the cost to the city in lost productivity attributable to the case, whether other days were videotaped but not used as evidence against the two workers, or whether other department employees were videotaped.

But he confirms that he has used private investigators on at least one other occasion. City personnel director Erwin Young estimates there have been at least five non-workers'-comp cases in the last 10 years where private security firms were hired to follow city employees on the job.

While Kocher also won't say when the investigation began, there are clues. Last July, LaPlaca and Toner both say a change took place in the handling of the Route Detail Reports. Instead of going into a filing cabinet, they were placed in a file on supervisor Marilyn DeMartini's desk. Also, in the March 17 letter, there is a reference to a review of meter readings during the time period of July 1998 through February 1999.

When the investigation began and how long management knew about the problem before acting is important. One of the principles of progressive discipline is that a problem, once discovered, must be dealt with promptly in fairness to the employee to give him or her an opportunity to correct it.

Magnum PI

UNDER PREVIOUS customer service manager Patricia McDonald, Toner and LaPlaca say they were pretty much left alone to do their jobs. At the end of each day they would fill out their timecards according to when breaks and lunch were supposed to be taken, and then sometimes go home early.

In 1995, things at the water department began to change. On April 18 of that year, Kocher drafted a letter intending to put a stop to the practices, although there was no suggestion in that letter that the two were improperly engaged in personal activities while on city time.

LaPlaca admits that sometime after the 1995 warning, he did some backsliding.

"I admit, a couple of years after that initial letter, I began to develop some bad habits," LaPlaca says. "It was common practice." Other field workers go out on service calls, but unlike the actions of Toner and LaPlaca, their every move is not being recorded by a meter-reading device.

Finally, when it came time to decide whether to pursue a grievance over their firing to arbitration, both LaPlaca and Toner say union officials discouraged them, recommending that they essentially beg for their jobs back. Just before their final hearing on March 29, both say they sent letters of apology to their superiors pleading for leniency.

"I would like to express how deeply remorseful I am for my actions," wrote LaPlaca. "I ask you to please [italics his] give me a second chance. I won't let you down."

"My job means everything to me," wrote Toner in a note to management. "I am a single mom with a 14-year-old son and truly need the security of the job and the benefits. ... Please allow me a second chance."

The two also presented a petition signed by 57 water department employees encouraging management to give them that second chance.

In the end, the best deal the union could get was that the two be allowed to resign in lieu of termination. Management agreed not to challenge their applications for unemployment, to give neutral evaluations to prospective employers and, after initially refusing, to grant COBRA benefits, which would allow them to continue their medical coverage.

Sharlene Cece, the SEIU field rep who handled the case, declined to comment on its handling--although her voice betrays frustration at being unable to respond to Toner's and LaPlaca's version of events. Begging aside, the question of inadequate supervision and the application of progressive discipline is a long-standing source of friction between unions and employers. Whether or not it was a strong enough defense to have saved Toner and LaPlaca, Cece would not say.

Worst-Case Scenario?

IN THE WAKE of their resignations, former departmental co-workers were at first thrown into a deep funk. Several fellow employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity, were troubled by what they felt was unfair treatment.

"I wish they'd gotten a second chance and I wish they'd been warned," says one.

Another says it was "kind of stupid on their part, but that's not a reason to be terminated." Everyone, says the worker, "feels that Mark and Lori were done wrong."

They are also disturbed by the prospect of a private security firm spying on them at work.

"It makes you feel kind of scared" was one typical complaint from a worker. "It's invasive." One worker admits to being "offended" by the practice.

Kocher held a staff meeting April 29 to try to clear the air, and one worker told Metro Santa Cruz that life in the office was beginning to return to normal. "Time kind of heals."

All the workers contacted by Metro Santa Cruz also agree on one thing: "There's lots worse elsewhere," says one. "This is hardly the worst case."

"Certainly I wasn't a choirboy here," LaPlaca says. "But I don't think the crimes justified anywhere near the punishment."

Kocher makes no excuses for how the case was handled.

"An employee owes the city eight hours of work for eight hours of pay, every day," he says simply.

It would seem that LaPlaca and Toner could easily have saved their own jobs by taking greater responsibility for their own actions before the situation got out of hand. But greater supervisorial diligence, which the department was obligated to exercise, could also have nipped the behavior in the bud and avoided the firings. The fact that the union chose not to pursue the case more strenuously suggests that it believed the case was unwinnable, it doubted the commitment of LaPlaca and Toner to pursue their defense or it simply threw in the towel.

The ultimate irony is that the records that were used to fire LaPlaca and Toner could, with timely application, have been used to correct the problem and save their jobs. So far, no manager or supervisor has lost his or her job over the case.

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From the May 12-19, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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