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Program for Bethlehem employees belongs in Nazi Germany, complains former administrator

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Jun 04 2014 04:48:40 AM CDT
Updated On: Jun 04 2014 02:03:47 PM CDT
Business administrator David Brong and Mayor Robert Donchez at Bethlehem Council meeting

Business administrator David Brong and Mayor Robert Donchez at Bethlehem Council meeting.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

The Bethlehem administration’s continuous improvement program for city employees is like something out of Nazi Germany, a former city administrator told City Council Tuesday night.

Dana Grubb said he has listened to hundreds of comments and complaints about the program, which he simply called CI, from more than 100 current and former city employees since it was implemented years ago.

He said their concerns have centered on individuals running the program, whom they repeatedly have described as vicious tyrants who use Gestapo tactics and police interrogation methods "to indoctrinate and force co-workers into abiding by their directives about how city government should be run."

"To be honest with you, I thought this was the stuff of Nazi Germany, not the United States of America," Grubb told council.

He said he recently read dozens of emails between the city’s CI administrator "and his minions," including a department business manager and an individual who is now the city’s acting HR director – Michelle Cichocki.

He said those three individuals used many pejorative nicknames to describe other city employees, including gnome, Muppet, little bastard, limpy, boy mayor and worse.

He said the CI administrator used an unprintable expletive about counselors in the city’s employee assistance program.

“I’ve never seen emails like this in city government,” said Grubb, who worked for Bethlehem for 27 years.

"In one, it was suggested that the CI administrator communicate with a female employee by 'talking dirty to her.' There are also references made to how a female employee dresses. This is disgusting."

Grubb said the "unprofessional, nasty and demeaning" emails by a small group of CI "missionaries" were an obvious abuse of the city's email system.

"It's equally disturbing that these are the kinds of public servants city government employs," he said.

"It's certainly little wonder that city employee morale is very low, given the disdain and disrespect with which they are treated. Perhaps CI should stand for ‘continual intimidation’."

Grubb didn’t name names when he spoke to council, but later explained his comments were about David Brong, the city’s business administrator.

Brong oversees the entire CI program, said Grubb.

Brong was sitting next to Mayor Robert Donchez in Town Hall when Grubb addressed council.

Without acknowledging that he is in charge of the CI program, Brong told council:

“The process has made people uncomfortable. It really has. But frankly, I don’t really care about that. Because when I look at the projections for the financial savings, I get uncomfortable.

“We can either be uncomfortable based on the accountabilities we are placing on people or we can get uncomfortable based on the financial realities we have to deal with. You can take your pick.”

In response to a question from City Council president J. William Reynolds after Grubb spoke, Brong said the city’s CI program is continuing “without question.”

After the meeting adjourned, the mayor said he is evaluating the CI program this year.

“I’ll decide at the end of the year whether we’ll continue it,” said Donchez.

Asked if he had any response about the content of the emails mentioned by Grubb, the mayor said: “That’s personnel. I don’t discuss that.”

The city council president twice invited the mayor to speak about the CI program after Grubb raised the issue, but Donchez declined to do so during the meeting.

Grubb later stressed the mayor “is not a party to what’s going on there. Bob Donchez is too honorable a guy.”

Complaints about health director

Grubb told council that after he received several complaints that Kristen Wenrich, the city’s health director, was spending too much time on CI and far too little on public health programs, he took those complaints to the Pennsylvania Department of Health in March.

He later received a copy of an email sent by the health director to all city administrators, outlining a new strategy for introduction to CI for employees who, as Grubb put it, “have not had an opportunity to drink the kool-aid.”

“When I read it, I thought ‘oh my God, this just shows how involved she is’,” said Grubb.

In April he included that email with a second letter he sent to the state health department “to reiterate everyone’s concerns and demonstrate the breadth” of the health director’s involvement in the CI program.

He said the state health department apparently initiated an investigation by contacting the health director and providing her with copies of Grubb’s communications.

“The health director must have immediately gone to the CI administrator who, on his own and without any knowledge or approval by the mayor, began investigating to discover who could have forwarded the health director’s e-mail to me,” said Grubb.

He said the city administrator who had forwarded the health director’s email to him was discovered and confronted.

“To the mayor’s credit, he has since implemented an administrative policy that requires his approval before this kind of unauthorized email investigation can happen again,” Grubb told City Council.

Brong addresses need for CI

After Grubb raised the issue, Brong did talk to City Council about the CI program and shared two examples of how CI has benefited Bethlehem.

But he did not respond to Grubb’s complaints about how the program is being run or the emails transmitted between himself and others involved in the program.

Brong told council about 285 of the city’s 620 employees have been through the CI training process, which apparently teaches them how to increase city revenues while decreasing its expenses.

Brong indicated CI instills a sense of urgency.

“Without it, what do we have?” asked Brong. “What is there? Some vague sense of service? Is that going to fix our problems? It’s not going to fix our problems.”

Brong said he worked in industry before going to work in government “and I will tell you that Continuous Improvement is mainstream. It’s not a fleeting notion in industry. It is the way that industry does business.”

Brong indicated the city’s government has been slow to implement CI practices “due to a lack of urgency, complacency and perhaps an overabundant focus on policy and not execution. It’s all in the execution. And that’s what we’ve been missing.

“The other thing we’ve been missing is the profit motivation. The need for survival. The urgency in this environment isn’t there. It’s been a little bit slow to get off the dime.”

“Brong was right in one respect,” said Grubb after the meeting. “There’s been a lot of resistance. And the resistance is because of the treatment that city employees get.”

CI started years ago

Grubb, a Bethlehem resident, said he worked in the city’s community and economic development department for 27 years. He was the deputy director of community development and also did a stint as the acting director of that department in 1999.

“I was shocked when I read those emails,” said Grubb after the meeting. “It’s despicable. This does not belong in city government.”

Brong was Bethlehem’s director of sewer and water when the CI program started.

“He’s the one who introduced it to city government,” said Grubb. “He brought it in under (Mayor) John Callahan. He’s been essentially calling the shots with CI ever since it was brought in.”

“This has been going on for years,” said Grubb, but he added city employees really went ballistic when Donchez made Brong the city’s business administrator.

After the meeting adjourned, Donchez confirmed Bethlehem’s CI program was started eight or 10 years ago by Mayor Callahan, his predecessor.

He said department heads have to develop goals, including cost-saving measures.