Shredding city documents, hiring unqualified workers, and an unwritten policy of nepotism within the San Diego Public Utilities Department are some of the findings of an internal report released to NBC 7 Responds.
The internal investigation was released by the City of San Diego’s Personnel Department in response to questions from NBC 7 Responds and Voice of San Diego.
The Personnel Department’s investigation, which concluded in January, confirmed the findings from an August 2016 City Auditor report that “family, friends, and relatives benefitted from a word-of-mouth selection process,” when hired to work for the department.
From 2012 to 2015, the investigations found that out of 120 applicants the water department hired 41 laborers that were unqualified for the position. That was 34-percent of all laborers hired during that time.
When investigators for the Personnel Department asked an employee who chaired the hiring process for documentation on the department’s hires, the employee said he was unable to produce it because he had “shredded the working copy without the direction” of supervisors.
Following the release of the Auditor’s report in 2016, the Public Utilities Department stopped hiring new laborers “until internal processes were improved”, according to city spokeswoman Katie Keach. Hiring resumed in October 2017.
Favoritism in the water department is part of what Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Deputy Chief Operating Officer Johnny Perkins call an unchecked “culture” inside the department.
“From meter reading oversight to customer service to communications to billing, changes must be made in how this department operates,” Mayor Faulconer said, responding in July to the auditor’s review of customer billing complaints.
Meanwhile, additional audits of the city’s water department are scheduled for release later this year, focusing on the city’s $60-million smart water meter program and the department’s customer service division.
On Wednesday, the city council’s Audit Committee discussed the Auditor’s separate findings, released last month, of a massive backlog of broken water meter boxes citywide. That backlog, as reported by NBC 7 Responds prior to the audit report’s release, is estimated to include more than 25,000 boxes and lids in disrepair.
NBC 7 Responds found that the city paid more than $500,000 in personal injury and property damage complaints as a result of the backlog, including a recent settlement paid to a Normal Heights woman for $107,500 after she fell through a damaged box injuring her knee and back.
“We knew it was bad but I didn’t know it was that bad,” said city councilmember Scott Sherman.
Sherman and other councilmembers received a blistering review of the division responsible for changing out busted meter boxes. The review, released by the City Auditor last month, found crews were allowed to socialize in the yard in the morning for more than three hours before going out in the field to fix boxes and lids. Supervisors said doing so was a way to build “camaraderie” within the department.
“It’s unacceptable,” said councilmember Sherman. “If it was the private sector I’d be standing over people’s desk with a cardboard box demanding a key to the front door.”
The criticism of city workers, however, was not well received by the Boxes and Lids Water Systems Technician Supervisor Dwayne Harvey, who said the audit findings were “incomplete”.
“The way my crew was talked about was wrong,” said Harvey. “My crew works their butt off and to say these things about them is wrong.”