Dane County's 911 Center oversight board has failed to conduct performance evaluations of the center's director in the past five years, in violation of a county law.
In response to questions and a public records request from Isthmus, county officials acknowledge they've long ignored a county ordinance that requires the 911 Center Board to conduct annual performance evaluations of the director and forward them to the county executive's office for use in her own performance evaluations.
"I couldn't come up with any evidence to see that the center board has done this in past years," says Joshua Wescott, a spokesman for County Executive Kathleen Falk.
Nor was there any evidence that Falk herself has evaluated the director's performance in the past five years, despite longstanding concerns about the center's operation.
This failure is the latest evidence of weak oversight and poor management of one of local government's most important public safety agencies. In 2004, an independent audit, not made public at the time, warned of a possible "catastrophic" event because of problems at the center.
Those problems began emerging in May after Isthmus disclosed that the center failed to dispatch police to a 911 call placed from UW-Madison student Brittany Zimmermann's cell phone before she was murdered. Isthmus learned of the call's existence from law-enforcement sources concerned about a possible cover-up.
A county ordinance and the 911 Center director's contract state that the evaluation process be initiated by the oversight board. Falk's office says she'll urge the board to conduct an evaluation soon.
"Honestly, I don't have an excuse for that," says Ron Boylan, who has chaired what is officially the Public Safety Communications Center Board since late 2006. "I take responsibility for not doing the evaluation."
The policy violations extend back through the tenure of Boylan's predecessor as board chair, Joe Norwick. In 2007, Falk handpicked Norwick to become center director, passing over external candidates with more experience running 911 centers.
Wescott confirms that Norwick did not evaluate the prior director while he was chairman. Norwick did not offer an explanation for his failure when contacted by Isthmus.
In July, Norwick canceled his budget presentation to the oversight board and said he needed another month. Board members readily agreed to an extension. Then, in August, Norwick presented a one-page, two-paragraph document listing new budget items for 2009 without dollar figures or year-to-year comparisons.
Only in response to questions did Norwick reveal that his budget sought a 10% increase from the previous year, with $660,000 in new spending. The funding would add seven new positions and $200,000 worth of computer software upgrades.
When Capt. Carl Gloede, Madison Police Chief Noble Wray's designee on the committee, asked why a new computer system was not included in the proposed budget, as planned, Norwick replied, "We've been a little busy, Carl."
The center does have a number of active projects, including initial work on a massive radio system upgrade and the remodeling of the current center. Plus there's an upcoming audit of the center's operations and a number of internal policy updates.
But Gloede pointed to meeting minutes from 2007 indicating that the new computer system was slotted for the 2009 capital budget. "I can't see the rationale," said Gloede, for delaying a project that was identified as a crucial need since 2004.
In response, Norwick said, "it's getting almost too late" to make budget changes. But Boylan noted the board is required by ordinance to review the 911 Center budget 30 days before it's submitted to the county exec's office.
"That hadn't happened," Boylan said, adding that the "budget isn't here with us today."
At the same time, a few miles away, Falk was holding a press conference announcing that she'd accepted Norwick's proposed budget increases. Norwick made no mention of this at the oversight board meeting.
"I had no clue until I read it in the paper," says Gloede. "I find the politics behind this very interesting. They clearly chose not to get advice about the budget from the 911 oversight board."
The center board scheduled a special meeting this week, after Isthmus' press deadline, to review budget details. Falk's office maintains that since the budget will not be formally submitted to the Dane County Board until Oct. 1, Norwick and her office are in technical compliance with the county ordinance by reviewing the budget for the first time on Sept. 3.
"She can spin it however she wants," says Gloede. "When she goes and holds a press conference on the very same day we're first hearing about a budget and essentially says the decisions about the budget have already been made, either we as a board don't know what we're doing, or they're jumping the gun by not even consulting the supposed experts of the center."
The August board meeting also revealed continuing employee complaints about 911 Center operations.
Several employees presented a petition signed by 29 workers opposing proposed computer software and procedural changes in how dispatchers handle police calls.
"We've come here to tell you, stop," said dispatcher Deb Julian.
County officials say the changes are meant to decrease the discretion of dispatchers and allow for easier data collection and analysis. But the dispatchers called the changes a "barrier" to providing fast services. They said calls might be lost or go unanswered because the new protocols require that more time be spent on each.
Julian likened the policy to "tying a hunk of concrete to our ankles and telling us to run." She also raised a concern that the current computer system cannot handle the software upgrades.
Norwick, in response, said, "I'll answer your questions in private."
And board members chastised the workers for expressing their concerns at a public meeting with reporters present, saying these should have handled through management. "We don't think you wanted our input," Julian replied.
'A shame what has taken place'
In July, in response to an Isthmus public records request filed in May, Dane County's corporation counsel said no complaints existed about the 911 Center from employees ("Officials Stonewall on 911 Complaints," 7/24/08).
It turns out that's not exactly true.
The county, after months of haggling over the wording of requests, has belatedly produced a batch of employee complaints. The harshest is an exit interview written in August 2006 by Maggie Freespirit, who quit the center after nine years.
Freespirit wrote that "workload, expectations and micromanagement have increased" without "adequate training" and that noise in the center is "incredible and constant." She also said supervisors don't understand new programs and have differing "unwritten policies."
Referring to a "huge turnover in dispatch," Freespirit advised that a 2004 audit calling for significant changes "would be worth revisiting and implementing."
Another dispatcher, Dan Dyer, wrote that same month to the county's employee relations manager, urging that "what Maggie says does not just get put aside and forgotten about." He said veteran dispatchers had left, sometimes without other jobs, because "they just couldn't tolerate the environment" created by 911 Center management.
"It is a shame what has taken place over the last four years in the 911 Center," Dyer wrote.