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Fired Official's Reforms Score Points for City

Government: A competition's Harvard committee is impressed. Oxnard is named one of nation's 25 most innovative public agencies.

October 08, 1997|CHRIS CHI and JODI WILGOREN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — Eight months after Oxnard City Manager Tom Frutchey was fired amid accusations of a tyrannical management style, his reforms have landed the city in the final round of a prestigious nationwide competition on government innovation.

Before a Harvard University-selected panel in Washington on Tuesday, acting City Manager Prisilla Hernandez outlined a "corporate-style" make-over of Oxnard's bureaucracy that is credited with cutting crime, holding down trash-collection rates and opening new parks despite a declining budget.

The city has been named one of the nation's 25 most innovative governments and has been awarded $20,000 from the nonprofit Ford Foundation, which runs the competition in conjunction with Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. The award money is to be used by city officials to travel to other communities and encourage civic leaders to replicate Oxnard's reforms.

Frutchey's reorganization plan was centered around empowering rank-and-file employees, giving them more say in how their departments are run.

But the standards for effective and efficient government are apparently much different in Oxnard than in the ivory towers on the East Coast.

Frutchey and the so-called "transformation" of city government were widely denounced during his public firing in February. Many city employees, and three of five council members, said they had been alienated by the top administrator's autocratic approach and that his reforms created a lack of accountability in City Hall.

Former Oxnard Finance Director Sandra Schmidt, for instance, resigned from her post and went to work for the city of Burbank last year. She said she expected to be the next in a string of employees fired by the city manager.

"Oxnard was not the place to pull this," Schmidt said. "There were some good things about the transformation, but you couldn't criticize anything, for fear you'd lose your job."

Schmidt noted the focus on "pay-for-performance," another Frutchey policy, had some questionable results, such as several parks department employees awarding themselves bonuses topping $6,000. Schmidt said she would not look forward to a visit to Burbank by her former Oxnard colleagues to promote a similar government overhaul.

"This city's doing just fine," Schmidt said.

Oxnard Mayor Manuel Lopez criticized the Harvard committee that evaluated the city's government, saying it was prone to catchy phrases and had heard a skewed argument from Frutchey supporters.

"I think the whole concept of innovation is based on verbally trying to make things sound good--'efficiency,' 'more for less,' " Lopez said, adding that the city had already begun streamlining its work force before Frutchey arrived. "A lot of it is smoke and mirrors."

Frutchey, 47, collected a city severance package worth about $60,000 and was recently hired as an executive at Borla Performance Industries, an Oxnard automobile exhaust system manufacturer.

He recalled filling out an application for the Harvard program last year, and said Oxnard's success in the competition demonstrates that private sector concepts can be brought to bear in city government.

"It all revolves around focusing on the service that one is providing," Frutchey said. "It means providing an opportunity for employees to be their best. We develop so many systems in bureaucracies that keep employees from being successful. In hierarchical organizations everywhere, the management says, and the staff, blindly, does. We didn't believe in that in Oxnard."

Oxnard is one of 25 finalists in a competition that screened applications from 1,540 municipalities and agencies across the United States. In addition to the $20,000 from the Ford Foundation, the city will get another $80,000 if its government innovations are deemed among the country's 10 best. The city will learn today if it qualifies for the top 10 ranking.

Other programs cited in "The Million Dollar Competition" are the California Department of Transportation's Highway 91 Express Lanes and a San Francisco program that lets first-time "johns" in prostitution cases avoid criminal prosecution through counseling.

Oxnard Councilman Tom Holden, a strong backer of Frutchey's reforms, said the national recognition is bittersweet.

"The frustration is, the person responsible for these reforms has been terminated," Holden said. "It is a very deep irony."

Frutchey became Oxnard's city manager in 1993, and soon initiated wide-reaching changes.

The restructuring reshuffled the chain of command in City Hall. Previously, about 1,000 city employees reported to one of nine department heads, who in turn reported to the city manager and City Council.

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