Watchdog out

John Eddings sits at his desk, surrounded by emptiness. There are no personal touches in his office here on the first floor of the old Macomb County Building in Mount Clemens, its walls bereft of the usual photos, diplomas and awards. The only thing on his desk is a beat-up computer that he pecks at occasionally, wrapping up his last bits of work. A winter hat and coat hang on the door, ready for an exit.

As Macomb County's first ombudsman, Eddings manned this desk for almost a year, listening to complaints from a parade of unhappy county employees and residents. Now, preparing to leave work for the final time on this day in late January, Eddings is in a contemplative mood as he talks about everything he's experienced since coming here, and the disappointment he feels in heading home before completing the job he set out to do.

The office was part of Macomb County's attempt to improve hiring and promotions practices, an experiment prompted by citizen groups concerned about a bureaucracy they perceived to be rife with cronyism, nepotism, racial discrimination and gender bias.

Eddings, 63, knew he wouldn't be here long. Breaking new ground is never easy. A lot of toes would have to be stepped on as he defined the role of ombudsman for a county that had never had one. He intended to stay on the job for three years, paving the way for whomever came next and then stepping aside. But heart problems caused that plan to fall through. Forced to leave office because of ill health after just a year, Eddings worried as he packed up that a County Commission that reluctantly created his position will use his departure as an opportunity to shutter the office permanently.

Eddings warns that would be mistake.

Conceived under pressure and botched at birth, the office nonetheless made much headway during his first year on the job, Eddings says. By his count, nearly 300 people walked into this office during his time on the job. They came to talk privately about concerns that included allegations of hiring bias, poor treatment of employees, and supervisors who retaliate against employees who complain.

But now, faced with a shrinking budget and needing to make cuts, a majority of county commissioners has identified the ombudsman office as a prime candidate for elimination. In the coming weeks, the question they will have to answer as they weigh the expense of continuing to fund the position is this: Can Macomb County afford not having a watchdog?

A department is born

The 26-member Macomb County Board of Commissioners created the ombudsman office amid much tumult. The overwhelmingly white county was beginning to receive an influx of African-Americans and Hispanics who didn't see the face of their government changing accordingly. Of particular issue were the county's hiring practices, seen as barring the door to minorities seeking positions of authority in government.

During the summer of 2003, a coalition of groups including the Macomb County branch of the NAACP, the Macomb County Ministerial Alliance (a group of black pastors advocating social justice in the county) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 411 (the county's largest union) were sending representatives to almost every board meeting to air complaints about hiring practices.

Their Exhibit A was Karen Upshaw, an African-American who worked as a part-time delivery clerk for the Macomb County library. A county worker for 16 years, she had applied for a full-time job as a mailroom clerk, a position similar to the one she already held. Despite that, she says, her application was ignored. She wasn't alone. To the best of her knowledge, she says, not one of the nearly 100 applicants for the job received an interview.

"The person hiring already knew who she wanted to hire," Upshaw says. The favored candidate, she alleged, was the brother of a friend of the person doing the hiring.

The lucky candidate was a white man who had no clerical experience. He also lacked a valid driver's license — even though the job required the use of a car to deliver mail.

Outraged coalition members led by the Ministerial Alliance pressured commissioners to revise the county's hiring methods to guard against such abuses. Included in their demands was the hiring of an ombudsman who could investigate allegations of wrongdoing.

Within the next six months, Upshaw replaced the man hired ahead of her and the board promised to revise its hiring practices by Dec. 1, 2003.

"I don't think we would've restructured any of the hiring revision if it hadn't been for the input of the Ministerial Alliance," says Commissioner Phil DiMaria (D-Eastpointe). "They helped create awareness of areas that needed to be improved upon."

The revisions included a directive to create an office of ombudsman.

Fast-forward a year. By December 2004, the board was ready to hire a watchdog. A reported 97 people applied for the job, one of them being Eddings, a veteran of the Detroit ombudsman office and former president of the United States Ombudsman Association. Limited to one 10-year term, Eddings' tenure in Detroit was coming to an end. He had followed Macomb's problems in the newspapers, he says, and thought the ombudsman's job looked promising. He told the board no one else in the area had the skills or experience needed to get the new office off the ground.

Needing a two-thirds majority of the board to win the job, Eddings passed muster with just one vote to spare.

Board Chair Nancy White (D-Fraser) says getting the necessary margin for approval required work. Some commissioners voiced skepticism about needing an ombudsman, she recalls, and needed convincing to change their votes.

"I told them that I thought this was a position we had to try," she says.

On Jan. 24, 2005, Eddings began work as Macomb's ombudsman. His starting annual pay was set at about $74,000, nearly 50 percent less than his Detroit salary. But that didn't seem to matter to him.

"I will serve the needs of all the people in Macomb County," he told the board after his hiring.

The ombudsman's first day

There were problems with the new office from the start. DiMaria, who supports the office of ombudsman and wants to see it continued, says that the board botched things when it created the position.

"None of us had experience with an ombudsman," DiMaria says. "We should have gone outside and asked for standards and criteria to base the job description on. We didn't do that. Essentially we gave a guy an office and a title and said, 'Here, we're going to have an ombudsman.'"

The problem, DiMaria says, was that commissioners accustomed to the insular world of Macomb County politics were wary of granting authority to an unknown person occupying an unfamiliar office.

That certainly seemed to be the feeling of former Commissioner Ralph Liberato, who voted against creating the new office. While various committees were reviewing the ombudsman idea, the Warren Democrat (who died in March 2004) lamented in The Detroit News that the office would be "another layer [of government] taking a position of authority."

It came down to power.

"Therein lies the problem," DiMaria says. "As we created the office of ombudsman, the language became more specific as to what he couldn't do instead of what he could do."

When it officially defined the office's powers in March 2004 the board neglected to give the ombudsman the ability to subpoena witnesses, a function usually provided to ombudsmen in other jurisdictions.

Powers that were granted were loaded with caveats. For example, while it was stated "the ombudsman may request and shall be given necessary assistance and information by each department," the guidelines also decreed that the ombudsman is required to use Michigan's Freedom of Information Act if the department in question doesn't comply with requests.

"I anticipated some of the restraints," Eddings says. "When politicians are forced to do something they don't want to do, they have ways of fighting back."

The biggest constraint, he says, was the stipulation that anyone wanting to voice a concern to the ombudsman must first take their complaint to a county commissioner. Nevertheless, Eddings says, he was able to deal with the other restrictions on a case-by-case basis.

It didn't have to be this way. The board could have consulted the United States Ombudsman Association, a 29-year-old organization consisting of about 100 ombudsmen from state, federal and local governments throughout the country. A longtime member of the group, Eddings had been its president in 1999-2000.

Michael Mills, another past president of the group, reviewed Macomb's ombudsman charter for the Metro Times. Mills is currently the ombudsman for Portland, Ore., and recently organized the USOA's standards for local government ombudsmen.

Mills found several problems. Notably, the requirement that anyone seeking to bring a concern to Eddings first had to meet with a commissioner has a chilling effect.

"That would make some uncomfortable with filing complaints," Mills says.

Another problem, Mills says, is that the definition of the ombudsman's investigative powers isn't clearly defined. And in the event the ombudsman is refused information, the FOIA requirement "is a bad way to deal with it," Mills says. Besides the fact that information from a FOIA request can take from weeks to months to receive, he explains, FOIA doesn't necessarily grant access to the sort of personnel information an ombudsman would need.

All in all, he says, "it's certainly less comprehensive" than the normal ombudsman standards.

Visitors are coming

But even with constrained powers, Eddings plugged along. During his one-year term, he says, he received nearly 300 visits to his office by employees and residents looking to voice concerns about what they saw as problems in the county government work environment.

The complaints were various. Some said that their applications for a county job seemed to disappear down a black hole. Others complained that their boss had passed them over for a promotion or had hired someone possessing good connections but not many qualifications. There were stories of employees being harassed after disagreeing with their supervisors.

"If what they believe is accurate," Eddings says, "this county has an extremely unhappy work force. It's trouble brewing."

Phil Frame, the county's public affairs director, doesn't think the situation in Macomb is anything unusual.

"Every work force I've had experience with had happy people and unhappy people," he says. "I don't think Macomb County is any different than any other work force in that regard."

By unhappy, Eddings explains, he doesn't mean the usual gripes that can be found in any workplace. "It's not a condition where they feel underpaid or overworked. They don't feel they're being treated in an equitable way."

"The people in Macomb County were genuinely afraid of losing their jobs if they filed a complaint," he says.

The most common problem he dealt with, Eddings says, had to do with allegations of supervisors treating male employees better than females.

"Gender bias was the biggest issue," Eddings says. "I don't think anyone filed a formal complaint, but it was raised as an issue quite often. I think if you would ask anyone in county government, they would indicate that males are treated better than females, and females aren't treated very well at all."

White says she was surprised that Eddings found gender bias to be such a big concern. Not surprised by its existence, but its relative degree.

After all, accusations of racism had been the predominant issue when the ombudsman office was created.

"I was relieved that it wasn't racial bias" that came out on top, she says.

Eddings says that on initial visits, he wouldn't ask people for their names or the department for which they worked. He would simply listen to what they had to say and decide if their gripe was legitimate.

If someone did want to go further, Eddings would suggest they write a letter to whomever they were having a problem with, since a complaint from a third party could just make matters worse. That simple step resolved most of the cases, he says.

"Some people just wanted to complain," Eddings says. "If I thought they had a legitimate concern, I'd ask them if they wanted to file a formal complaint." By his count, only 10 people took that step. There were two main reasons for the low number, he says. One was that just talking about their concerns was enough to mollify them. Other times fear of retaliation would keep them from formally pursuing the matter.

One issue that came up less frequently than what some commissioners, including White, expected was racial bias. Although the official face of county government hadn't changed much before 2003, the county itself was changing rapidly. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of African-American residents in Macomb County jumped from 2.7 percent in 2000 to almost 5 percent of the county's 813,807 residents in 2004, the last year for which data is available.

The county work force changed also. According to a 2005 report to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, blacks made up 7.2 percent of the county's nearly 2,500-person work force, a higher percentage than in the county as a whole. Critics, however, point to the fact that there are still no black department heads in county government, although there are an increasing number of African-Americans working in mid-level technical and administrative jobs such as law clerks.

County Human Resources Director Ted Cwiek says that reflects an improvement in the county's hiring practices, which were overhauled in 2003. The issue, he says, has been a priority for the county. He notes that 34 — or 16 percent — of the 208 new hires made in 2005 were minorities.

"I certainly think we have made progress," he says.

The changes made in 2003 show the county was serious about addressing allegations of cronyism and nepotism. Previously, much of the hiring authority rested in the hands of department heads. Now personnel in Cwiek's department help screen job applications, and devise questions for an applicant's interview. There is also a newly created point system used to grade each applicant, minimizing the chances of a department head showing favoritism.

Due to the new practices, Cwiek says, "We have hired the most qualified applicants for government positions."

Eddings himself says he didn't receive many complaints of overt racism in Macomb hiring. But, he says, "The fact that no one complained to me does not mean that there are no racial problems."

He contends that African-American workers are more apt to turn to outside organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union or the NAACP.

Eddings also saw nepotism and cronyism being more of a problem than overt racism.

"The best way I could describe it is ... here they are only comfortable with people they know and have long-established relationships with," he says.

And those people didn't tend to be minorities.

Gregory Murray, vice president of the Macomb NAACP, agrees, adding that an ingrained culture of cronyism and nepotism bars the door to qualified job candidates, black or otherwise. Although his organization focused on seeking racial justice, he says its work in Macomb County actually benefits the larger community.

"When the hiring practices were allegedly revised in 2003, it also affected whites who did not have the right name or family connections to be considered for positions in the good old boy network," he says.

But he adds that another reason for the relative infrequency of racial bias complaints in Eddings' office might be that black employees were more afraid to come forward than their white counterparts.

"If white females were loath" to file formal complaints, he says, "black workers had an even harder time."

Ominous signs

During the summer of 2005, Eddings says, he started having difficulty breathing during his walks between his office and the parking structure a few blocks away. At first he attributed the problem to being overweight. Then medical tests revealed a serious heart condition. The problem wasn't fatal, but it would demand time-consuming treatment.

"I hemmed and hawed," Eddings says, "But I decided that if I was serious about my health, I'd have to get into it [treatment] full time."

At about the same time Eddings was deciding the time to retire had come, questions about the future of the ombudsman office itself were beginning to form.

At a Nov. 14, 2005, meeting of the Budget Committee, then-Commissioner Diana Kolakowski (D-Sterling Heights) distributed surveys to the 24 board members present. (Kolakowski resigned from the county board earlier this month to take a job with the city of Warren's Economic Planning Department.) At $444 million, the proposed 2006 county budget needed to be cut by $12 million. A proposed 3 percent across-the-board reduction for all departments would achieve half the savings required, leaving an additional $6 million to be cut from other areas.

As Kolakowski distributed the 11-page questionnaire, she asked the commissioners to mark whether they thought each of the 50 items listed should be eliminated from the budget, have its budget reduced, kept whole or undergo further budgetary study. The items were part of the county's discretionary budget, departments or services that were not considered integral to running Macomb government.

When 21 of the surveys came back to the Budget Committee the following month, 18 commissioners had singled out the ombudsman office for elimination, placing it at the top of the list. The next highest, the office of public affairs, garnered 10 votes for elimination.

White says that the ombudsman office is just one on a list of departments being looked at for cuts, and that county residents shouldn't think that, even if the office is scrapped, the move represents a reneging on the commitment to fair hiring practices.

"I can see why people in the outside world think of it that way," she says. "But we're trying to look at spending our money in the best possible way."

Among those targeting the ombudsman office for elimination was Kolakowski, who originally voted for its creation.

"According to everything I've heard and read, [Eddings] indicated most of his complaints were not about the hiring practices," she says. "They were on how female supervisors treated female employees. I don't know if we need a full-time person doing that."

Commissioner Peter Lund (R-Shelby Township) agrees with that economic evaluation. "When we're at a time when the county is cash-strapped, I think it's a good idea to look at the office," he says. "I think this is a good time to put it on hold, maybe bring it back at a later date."

White says the board is now considering outsourcing the ombudsman's duties to The Resolution Center, a conflict resolution agency in Mount Clemens. But Craig Pappas, chief executive of the Resolution Center, has his doubts.

"The role of ombudsman is a little bit different from what we do," he says. "They do some fact-finding, some investigating. We don't do investigations, we don't make recommendations. We don't decide who's telling the truth or not."

Eddings, for his part, doesn't find anything sinister in the board considering elimination of the ombudsman position.

But, he says, his retirement did provide a good opportunity for some commissioners to scrap a department some didn't want in the first place and others don't care to keep.

The ombudsman's complaint

As soon as the results of the budget survey became known, a backlash began to form.

"The position of ombudsman was created to respond to concerns by residents," says Harold Core, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights in Lansing. He says the state agency has been interested in the Macomb ombudsman issue since 2004 because of complaints his office was receiving from residents.

"It's our feeling that in order to honor that commitment to their residents, the county should refill that position," he says. "But not refilling that position, it would almost be going back on their word. It essentially ignores the good faith effort for their residents."

Eddings had his own concerns to voice before he left office.

In a scathing 12-page final report that he placed in the office mailboxes of county commissioners Jan 18, 2006, Eddings described what he believed to be the problems facing Macomb County government in general and the office of ombudsman in particular.

His report charged that the board had not endowed the ombudsman with enough authority to properly conduct investigations, and that subpoena powers should be granted. He said, too, that the ombudsman's ability to maintain the confidentiality of complainants needs to be strengthened.

But the real vitriol was thrown at the county's lack of progress in addressing the insular atmosphere in its government. Whether the perceptions of a biased government are based in fact doesn't matter, Eddings wrote: The government wasn't doing enough to dispel the feeling that Macomb County didn't value its work force and didn't welcome outsiders.

The report accuses county officials of letting the idea of a professionally developed diversity training program, first mentioned in the revised hiring practices of December 2003, languish. It took until January 2005 for the county to even request bids for the program, and it still has not been implemented.

Cwiek counters that the training program is on track, saying that at the Feb. 15 meeting of the board's Personnel Committee he plans to propose the formation of a working group, which will then select a vendor to get the program up and running.

Eddings' report goes on to say that county supervisors still need to work against the appearance of gender bias. "There exists a widespread belief, often with apparent justification, that in order to anticipate promotion or even simple courteous treatment, the county employee must be male."

In all, Eddings wrote, the county needs to make haste in exacting demonstrable changes in its hiring practices. Otherwise, he says, the real trouble is yet to come.

"Lip service alone does not increase the confidence of citizens in their local government," he wrote in one of the reports most stinging lines.

Those opinions didn't find much favor among commissioners. It didn't help that the report found its way into the newspapers almost as soon as the board read it. Eddings says he released copies to no one but the commissioners.

"My intention was to write a rational, logical, middle-of-the-road nonjudgmental report without an accusatory tone to it, pointing out what people had told me they believe the problems are," he says. "Based on the reaction, I obviously missed the boat somewhere."

Nancy White certainly thinks so.

"The final report was so nonfactual," she says. "He himself said it was the perception of problems" at least as much as actual problems plaguing the county. "If he's right, he's right. But the board has no way to deal with it unless we have facts."

Eddings' reaction to the board's reaction: "If they thought that was bad, they should have seen the first draft," he says before rumbling with laughter.

That said, the report did result in Eddings being called in for his first formal appearance before the collected commissioners since his hiring. The board's personnel committee scheduled a meeting with Eddings for Feb. 15, to discuss issues raised in his report. The scheduled date is almost two weeks after he officially left the job.

On that last day in his office, in an interview there with Metro Times, Eddings was contemplative, thinking about what might have occurred next if ill health had not forced him to leave prematurely.

He knew there would have been more fights ahead, and regretted that he would not be there to represent county employees and workers who felt government officials weren't being attentive to their needs and complaints. He came here to make things better, and felt the struggle was far from over.

"This is the type of battle I would have loved," he says before closing the door to the office behind him.

Ben Lefebvre is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to [email protected] or call