How Not To Manage An Agency
It's more Andrew Thomas this week. My suggested headline was above, but the editor thought something else would invoke the "heckuva job, Brownie" style of executive leadership more directly.
THOMAS TAKING FEMA APPROACH TO COUNTY OFFICE
East Valley Tribune, Nov. 4, 2007
In my day job, I run a law firm. So I also have a professional interest in Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas and his "leadership style." What Thomas’s "special assistant" Barnett Lotstein this past week called "decisive leadership" ("Thomas deserves credit for decisive leadership," Opinion 2, Tuesday) I call "trashing a public agency."
Thomas and Lotstein will be spinning away the news that use of outside attorneys has soared under the Thomas regime. Now, it’s of course true that all county attorneys in Arizona use outside attorneys. Lots of cases require specialized expertise, like defamation or AHCCCS reimbursement cases, and it doesn’t make sense to develop expensive and infrequently-used expertise in-house, and then only use it infrequently.
But because something makes sense sometimes in some cases doesn’t mean it makes sense all the time in all places. First, it’s highly deceptive to compare the Maricopa County Attorney’s office to others in the state, because Maricopa is so much bigger. Thomas’s office has over 300 attorneys, and that’s with 10 percent of his positions vacant. Pinal County or Gila County has maybe one-tenth or one-fifth as many, so it’s a lot harder to have a range of specialized expertise. If you’ve got 313 attorneys, you’ve got much more ability to do things in-house.
Second, use of outside counsel simply exploded under Thomas. Since taking office in 2005, Thomas has increased his office’s contract spending from $5.7 million to $9.58 million to $15.97 million. With those numbers, it’s not just the high-profile cases, like the New Times grand jury investigation (and we sure got our money’s worth there!) The county has grown in population, and attorney hourly rates have increased, but not nearly by those percentages. With numbers like that, these contracts simply have to include lots of stuff that used to be handled in-house.
Under past county attorneys, Maricopa County found a way to develop a small, but cost-effective, group of experienced civil attorneys to handle liability claims. The county is a huge employer, landowner, and facility operator, and any business that size is going to have a steady stream of liability lawsuits. Some claims may be covered by insurance and the carriers’ outside counsel, but in a lot of cases, the county had to pay for the defense -- and found it a lot cheaper to develop a small group of seasoned civil trial lawyers who could handle these cases, leaving only the truly exceptional ones for outside counsel.
Thomas, however, thought it was more important to manage his office to get maximum airplay on talk radio, not the best value for county taxpayer’s money. Part of the deal with seasoned, senior civil litigators is that they tend to look down on junior, inexperienced, and there-because-of-politics-not-merit attorneys -- like Andrew Thomas. The senior guys had little use for Thomas’s wackier management policies, like sending 20- or 30-year attorneys to handle weekend or night court.
Thomas proudly announced that he expects every attorney in his office to handle all different types of cases. The senior guys say this is nonsense, you don’t send an expert to handle routine first-year stuff, and they start leaving. Then Thomas suddenly notices, gosh! His office lacks specialized expertise! His solution? Explode the number of contracts for outside counsel, including contracts to friends and former employers like Dennis Wilenchik.
It’s the FEMA style of management. You trash the agency, stock it with political hacks, run off seasoned professionals, and then are deeply saddened at the lack of expertise. You have simply no choice but to give large numbers of contracts to cronies and campaign contributors. It’s what the Bush administration has done to FEMA and to the Justice Department, and what they’re going to do to the State Department, too.
It’s bad management and bad public policy, and it only raises costs and reduces the quality of government. But the thing I resent most about Andrew Thomas is that just as Alberto Gonzales managed to make people look back fondly on Attorney General John Ashcroft, Andy Thomas is making us nostalgic for Rick Romley.