City of Dallas' tech department hiring raises questions [The Dallas Morning News]
(Dallas Morning News (TX) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) July 17--It takes a wide range of skills to run Dallas City Hall's technology department, a vital unit that oversees the 911 system, courthouse computers, sophisticated billing programs and other operations.
But among some employees there, one credential stands out: membership at The Chosen Vessel Cathedral, a Pentecostal church in Fort Worth.
The department's director, Worris Levine, is an associate pastor. In the past two years, he approved the hiring of two of the church's other associate pastors, a deacon and four other parishioners.
Levine arranged an elevated salary for one of the associate pastors, Charles Rainbow. The other associate pastor, Patricia Smith, became a senior manager.
With the exception of Rainbow, all of the Chosen Vessel parishioners were put on the payroll as temporary workers, meaning they bypassed civil service procedures that would have required a more thorough vetting of their qualifications.
Although Levine defended the decisions, his boss, City Manager Mary Suhm, said last week that she is troubled by the lack of records tracking the hires.
The city could not produce even basic documentation of any selection process, such as records showing that the jobs were posted or drew other applicants. In several cases, the city has no record of even their job applications.
The personnel decisions have revived old concerns from within the department about whether Levine uses fair and competitive hiring practices.
In interviews, Levine sought to distance himself from the hires. He said that, though he signed the offer letters and other paperwork, managers beneath him handled all the decisions.
"I have personally hired no one from my church," Levine said. "I had no part. I was not in the interview with them, did not make the decision that they were the best candidates."
Levine took over the department of Communication and Information Services in 2006. Today, he is responsible for about 200 employees and a $62 million budget.
During a recent Sunday service, Chosen Vessel's parking lot hosted about 150 cars. Levine said he joined the church in mid-2008.
Within about a year, Levine's department hired three members of the church. Four more have been hired since then.
Showing favoritism toward members of Chosen Vessel would violate the city's civil service rules, which require employees to be hired and promoted solely on merit.
Levine said networking, not favoritism, explains how the church members landed in his department.
"People come to me and ask, 'Do you have job openings?'" he said. "Everywhere I go, I'm always trying to recruit if someone comes and asks."
Levine said that he sometimes gives people the names of hiring managers, but that they handle the process from there, usually interviewing at least three candidates.
But human resources experts say once armed with the hiring manager's name, a job seeker can get an edge by boasting of where it came from.
Potentially more serious issues are raised by hiring church members as temporary workers with no documentation of a selection process, said Richard Schott, a professor of public administration at The University of Texas at Austin.
"This is really fraught with questions," Schott said.
Levine said the department has filled many positions with temporary workers because those jobs are easier to cut during a bad economy.
"If I know I have a position that's up in the air as far as what I'm going to keep, I'm going to put a temporary person in there," he said.
Levine said temporary employees are essential for his department, which often has trouble competing with the private sector for workers. But he said his department will begin keeping better records on their selection.
The hiring of Levine's church members has stirred discontent among some of the department's other employees, and it is not the first time concerns about his personnel decisions have surfaced.
In 2006, within months after Suhm hired Levine, she received a letter signed anonymously by "CIS Employees."
Among a list of complaints about Levine, the letter said he was disregarding civil service rules by promoting unqualified people, picking favorites and shutting out others.
Suhm appointed a team to investigate. Two months later, they reported that the allegations were not substantiated.
It was an outcome that a second anonymous letter had predicted, saying employees feared giving the investigators candid answers.
"Unfortunately, we will all pay for it later," the letter told Suhm. "But at least we can say we warned you."
In cases in which records were available, Levine's church members touted relevant experience. But because the records are incomplete, it's unclear whether the parishioners were the best qualified candidates.
Still, most of them became managers.
Levine approved hiring Smith as a temporary IT engineer in August 2009. She remained a temporary worker as she was quickly promoted to senior manager, overseeing more than two dozen employees.
The city cannot locate Smith's application or resume, but officials were able to find questionnaires filled out by two of her references.
One described Smith as a support tech and operations manager for Baylor Health Care System, ending in 2001. The other, more recent reference described her as an IT engineer for Chosen Vessel.
Smith, paid $37 an hour, took on assignments that included overseeing the resolution of potentially dangerous problems for the city's police and fire computer systems, which city auditors have criticized for many years.
Two years ago, a virus attack disabled the emergency dispatch system for 13 hours. Auditors cited the attack in a critical report last year about the state of the police and fire computer systems. The audit listed Smith as one of the managers responsible for correcting the issues.
Smith also played a role handling issues affecting the city's water billing system. The system, criticized by auditors repeatedly over the years, has continued to face problems.
In a February email exchange, a manager who reported to Smith begged an outside contractor for assistance after a maintenance contract lapsed.
"I REALLY NEED YOUR HELP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" Smith's subordinate pleaded as the billing system faced problems.
The contractor's representative was unmoved.
"18 months ago the City of Dallas was informed all support contracts had expired," the emailed reply said. "This was brought up again in the emergencies in November, December, January, and now February."
Smith declined to comment. Because temporary employees are not required to undergo evaluations, it's unclear how well she or most of the other church members have performed.
Levine said that Smith did well, and that she resigned in March.
But in a letter at that time, Levine notified Smith of his decision to "discharge" her, saying it was "final and nonappealable."
Who recruited whom
Isaac Cooper is another church member who became a manager in the department. Cooper, a deacon at Chosen Vessel, was hired in October to manage the city's radio network unit. At $50 per hour, Cooper is one of the city's most highly paid temporary employees.
Levine said his former assistant director Chuck Burki found Cooper on his own and recruited him.
"When Chuck brought his name up to me, I was just as surprised," Levine said.
Cooper gave a different account.
"One day down at the church I found out that [Levine] worked for the city," Cooper said. "And somehow or another someone told him that I used to work for the FAA."
Cooper, who retired from the FAA in 2005, said Levine told him to speak with Burki.
"He said, 'Go see him and turn in your resume to him,'" Cooper said. "So I did."
Unlike the other church members, Rainbow, the associate pastor, was hired as a permanent employee. He has worked since January 2010 as a supervisor in the "data center," where the city's big computer systems are housed.
Rainbow's application showed experience supervising in the data center of an Irving telecommunications company called Excel. He left in 2007, one of many employees laid off when the company restructured, Excel officials said. His resume says he then worked as a computer operator for a chemical company.
In his application, Rainbow asked the city not to contact Excel, and he did not provide a reference from the chemical company.
The application supplied only one professional reference: Richard Young, head pastor at Chosen Vessel. During the early 1990s, Young was chief executive of a small trucking company where Rainbow said he supervised six employees.
Rainbow declined to comment, and Young did not return calls.
City records show that 44 people applied for Rainbow's job. The city's civil service staff deemed 11 of those, including Rainbow, qualified and sent their applications to Levine's department.
Levine placed responsibility for Rainbow's hiring on a low-level manager, Curtis Pruitt. Levine arranged for The Dallas Morning News to speak with Pruitt, who said he interviewed at least four of the applicants.
But The News contacted each of the applicants, and all but one aside from Rainbow said they had never been interviewed.
Several of the applicants had extensive supervisory experience in data centers and said they were surprised to not receive even a phone call.
"I was very well-qualified because I had done pretty much the exact same job at the city of Fort Worth," said Crystal Hannah, whose application touted 13 years of computer operations and data center management.
Once Rainbow was picked, Levine signed a request for him to receive an elevated starting salary.
In most cases, city employees start below the midpoint of a position's salary range. Levine requested that Rainbow be hired toward the upper end at nearly $70,000 per year.
In the "exceptional salary" request, Levine wrote that Rainbow could provide special expertise in data backup. But in a performance evaluation a year later, Pruitt wrote that he wanted Rainbow to develop "a working knowledge of data backups."
Asked about that, Levine said the pay request, which he signed, was Pruitt's call. Pruitt said he did so because Rainbow understood the concept of backups, although by the time of the evaluation a year later, Rainbow had yet to learn how to use the city's backup software.
In defending the hiring of his church members, Levine said they make up only a small percentage of the 121 hires he has approved while directing the department.
But the parishioners make up a much larger portion of the roughly 20 temporary workers hired during the past two years.
Presented with The News' findings, Suhm said that Levine's department needs temporary workers, but that she was disappointed by the scarcity of records on their hiring.
Going forward, she said, temporary workers who stay with the city more than a year need to have their performance formally evaluated.
Suhm said she has counseled Levine, and she will stress to other department directors that thorough hiring records must be kept.
"It needs to be the very best person," she said, "and you need to be able to document and verify that's what you did."
AT A GLANCE
Chosen Vessel hires
These members of The Chosen Vessel Cathedral in Fort Worth were hired by Dallas City Hall's Communication and Information Services department in the past two years. Its director is an associate pastor of the church.
Hire date: July 15, 2009, as temporary worker
Position: Web designer
The records: His resume cited IT experience, the most recent being a "graphics and logistics" contractor for Chosen Vessel. Four months after being hired as a temporary employee, he became permanent, beating out 48 other applicants deemed qualified.
What he said: "I had no conversation with Mr. Levine regarding the city of Dallas until after I was working for the city of Dallas."
Hire date: July 29, 2009, as temporary worker
Position: Manages a team of computer security analysts
The records: The city cannot locate her resume or application.
What she said: Did not return calls for comment.
Hire date: Aug. 26, 2009, as temporary worker
Position: Became a senior manager, overseeing more than two dozen employees. Was discharged in March.
The records: The city cannot locate her resume or application.
What she said: Declined to comment.
Hire date: Oct. 7, 2009, as temporary worker
Position: Managed a group that handles the city's water billing system. Resigned in October.
The records: The city could not locate her application. Her resume cited related IT experience, but no management experience.
What she said: Levine "just told me that there was a job out there, and I applied for it. He didn't do anything for me."
Hire date: Jan. 27, 2010, as permanent employee
Position: Supervisor in the data center
The records: The civil service department qualified 10 other candidates, only one of whom said he was interviewed.
What he said: Declined to comment.
Hire date: June 30, 2010, as temporary worker
Position: electronic technician
The records: The city cannot locate her application or resume.
What she said: Did not return calls for comment.
Hire date: Oct. 20, 2010, as temporary worker
Position: Manages the radio network unit
The records: His resume cited many years of IT experience, the most recent of which was as an IT engineer for a community development corporation run inside Chosen Vessel.
What he said: Worris Levine gave him the name of the hiring manager, who handled the process from there.
A review by The Dallas Morning News found:
Worris Levine, Dallas City Hall's chief information officer who oversees a $62 million department, has hired seven members of his church.
Most parishioners were hired as temporary workers, meaning they bypassed civil service procedures.
In most cases, the city could not produce even basic records showing any selection process.
To see more of The Dallas Morning News, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.dallasnews.com.
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