Check out this roundabout in York, England. Councilman Jon Camp was in England a few days ago and snapped this photo of the roundabout, which his friends billed as “the world’s smallest roundabout.”
“I was fascinated and watched traffic for nearly an hour to see how different types of vehicles negotiated the roundabout,” Camp said. And even though the British roundabouts are often cited by the more well-traveled, cosmopolitan among us when arguing in favor of more roundabouts in America, Camp said some Brits even disparage the curlicue-like roads as being unsafe. Camp, by the way, is neutral on the 14th and Superior roundabout.
Several hundred Lincolnites showed up for a public meeting Wednesday night about a controversial three-lane roundabout scheduled for construction later this month at 14th and Superior streets.
And many of them were mad.
The meeting began at 6 p.m. but the city wasn’t scheduled to begin a presentation until 6:30 p.m. By 6:28 p.m., people were getting itchy and one man stood up and started loudly asking what time it was and why the presentation wasn’t beginning. People began clapping in unison – faster and faster as if to say, “Let’s get it started.”
The city gave out full-color, glossy fliers explaining the $11 million project and the merits of the three-lane roundabout that is its centerpiece, but opponents also stood by the door handing out their own black-and-white fliers outlining concerns. The city ran out of fliers at 200.
Miki Esposito – the city’s interim public works director – was baptized by fire as she had the unenviable task of trying to run the meeting. She opened by asking people to be patient and respectful. She said her son attends Kooser Elementary School and she uses the 14th and Superior intersection to get to work.
Thomas Shafer, head of design and construction for the city public works department, told the audience he lives in North Hills and drives through the intersection about 20 times a week – and then a man started yelling at him. Shafer said the roundabout is the safest, most cost-effective option and will be able to handle more traffic than a signaled intersection. He said the intersection has had 90 accidents in three years, and cited a 2000 report that said crashes dropped 39 percent after traditional intersections were converted to roundabouts. Injury accidents dropped 76 percent and fatal or incapacitating accidents dropped nearly 90 percent, according to the report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit funded by auto insurers and associations.
But when Shafer began citing those stats, a man yelled, “That’s not true!”
When Shafer pointed to a computer simulation of what the roundabout should look like in 2025, some people hooted and howled.
“That is never gonna happen like that!” one yelled.
At that point, some people started leaving. Many people were frustrated because even though city officials say they’ve held 20 meetings on the topic, many felt city officials did not listen to them.
When City Engineer Roger Figard said the roundabout went through “a lot of process,” someone yelled “Who discussed it?”
At one point, someone asked people who supported the roundabout to raise their hands, and about a dozen did so.
The meeting seemed on the verge of spiraling out of control when Shafer wisely invited former Police Chief/current Public Safety Director Tom Casady to come up and give his opinion. In a quiet, soothing voice, Casady calmed the crowd somewhat — speaking like a teacher in control of a classroom, he said, “I’ve spent most of my adult life being yelled at by people. If you wanna hear what I have to say… before the yelling starts. If you don’t, I’ll go home and cook.”
Casady said he was skeptical before the city built the roundabout at 33rd and Sheridan Boulevard and wondered whether the city was ready for it.
“I’ve seen a lot of people in Lincoln looking at a detour sign like cattle looking at a new gate,” he said.
In the eight years before the Sheridan roundabout was installed, there were 104 crashes, 27 with injuries. In the eight years since, Casady said there have been 21 crashes, two with injuries.
However, a person yelled that the Sheridan roundabout has “One lane not three!”
As for the underpass that some people fear will be unsafe for middle school kids, Casady said it’s better than having students bolt across the street. When someone began yelling, Casady said, “Do you mind, sir?” The man kept yelling, so Casady asked the crowd, “How about everybody else?” and many applauded in agreement that the man should zip it.
After the city finished its presentation, city officials tried to steer people toward the back of the room to privately ask questions at several booths set up with renderings of the project, but they were basically buffaloed into allowing people to come up to the front of the room and ask questions via microphone.
For the rest of the meeting, people came up and asked questions, complained and occasionally offered support.
One of the leading opponents, Carol Brown, questioned why the city shelved the other option: a traditional intersection with dual left turns, two through lanes and a right turn lane.
“This is not gonna work there,” she said of the roundabout.
Figard said the city used world-renowned consultants who have done roundabouts all over the nation, and tested the new double roundabout by Memorial Stadium with semis, fire trucks and city buses — all of which were able to navigated them. But he knows roundabouts are controversial: He said typically 60 to 80 percent of people oppose them.
“Roundabouts are coming,” he said. “They’re now in the driver’s manual.”
Construction is set to begin Oct. 24 and the roundabout is scheduled to open in November 2012. The whole project — which is being paid for with all local money — is scheduled to be done in May 2013.
This is the first time I’ve seen the city allow a true public meeting to be held on a city project. The city normally sets up booths with pictures of the project and allows people to ask questions of the people manning the booths. No public presentation, no Question & Answer period, no opportunity for things to spiral out of control like they nearly did tonight. However, I applaud the city for making an exception. It was democracy in action, even though it probably makes city officials nervous and certainly the mayor will not like seeing the TV news and headlines about the rancor.
Unfortunately for opponents, I don’t think they can stop this train. After the meeting, as people were trickling out, I asked the public works director whether there was any chance the city would reconsider the roundabout.
“The project is going forward,” Esposito said, moments after a woman predicted a child would be killed in the roundabout some day, and told her she’d have blood on her hands when it happened.
People who oppose the roundabout set to be constructed at 14th and Superior have convinced city officials to allow them to hold a public meeting about the controversial $11 million project and push back the construction state date to the week of Oct. 24.
An opponent of the roundabout sent me a flyer advertising a meeting to be held on Wednesday at the Belmont Recreation Center, 1234 Judson St., from 6 to 8 p.m. The city had planned to hold an “open house” on Monday — one day before construction begins. But at the city open house, there is no formal presentation or opportunity for people to line up at a microphone and give the city their two cents about the wonderful/insane project. Instead, there are renderings to look at and consultants to ask questions of and city officials to chat with, but this sort of setup keeps things calm and quiet and non-controversial. Nothing to see here.
But opponents say the city has now agreed to allow them to hold a public meeting, where (according to the flyer), people can voice their concerns and opinions (gasp!). And there will actually be a presentation (this is unusual, people) at 6:30 p.m. The meeting will include a discussion of neighborhood traffic issues and tunnel visibility and the public will be able to comment on the project timeline. Not sure if that’s all they’ll be allowed to comment on.
Does that mean the city is reconsidering the roundabout portion of the project? I highly doubt that. But this way, the mayor’s office can say it gave opponents a chance to speak their mind. Opponents had been promised a public meeting — but they never got one, except for the open house which had been hastily scheduled for one day before construction begins.
People who live and work near the intersection do not believe a roundabout is the best option for the area, and also don’t like plans for a pedestrian tunnel planned on the west and south sides of the intersection — saying it’s not a good plan for middle school students. The project will also widen 14th Street to four lanes from Superior to Interstate 80 and the Department of Roads also is building a bridge over Interstate 80 on North 14th Street.
The I-80 bridge is scheduled to open in August 2012, and the roundabout is scheduled to open in November 2012. The entire project is expected to be completed in May 2013.
The city will begin building a controversial $11 million roundabout and other improvements to the intersection of 14th and Superior on Oct. 11.
The night before, citizens are invited to a “public meeting” about the project at the Belmont Recreation Center. However, if you’ve ever been to one of these meetings, you know that there is no formal presentation and it is really an open house, where there are pretty pictures of the project and people come and go as they wish, and can ask questions of the city employees and consultants. I’ve noticed over the years that the city never, EVER holds a true “town hall meeting” or true public meeting where there’s a presentation and then people can ask questions in a public fashion.
I imagine some PR genius told them that’s a good way to keep the crowd quiet and in control.
So if you’re interested in learning more about the project — which is much more than just a roundabout, but also a widening of 14th from two lanes to four north of Superior and reconstruction of the 14th Street bridge over Interstate 80 — go to the meeting or check out this website. But don’t expect to be able to harangue any public officials about the wisdom of the project at the meeting — unless you want to corner one of them one-on-one. And in any case, I doubt there’s anything you can say that will prevent the project from going forward the next morning — meaning 14th Street will have road closures from then on.
The I-80 bridge is scheduled to open in August 2012, and the roundabout is scheduled to open in November 2012. The entire project is expected to be completed in May 2013.
Lincoln resident Kolleen Krikac was surprised to hear construction will begin soon when concerned residents asked for a meeting months ago to discuss the project.
“How is it possible to have a meeting scheduled for the night before construction is to begin?” she said in an email to city officials. “This appears to be a sneaky way to pass it under the radar of the citizens of Lincoln, especially those whom it will most affect. The vast majority of people who live near this intersection are opposed to it and want their concerns to be heard.”
She said 99 percent of the people in her neighborhood signed a petition opposing the roundabout.
Personally, I have no problem with roundabouts. In fact, I like them. I use the one at 33rd and Sheridan Boulevard almost every day. However, it does not work under certain circumstances — primarily in the morning before school, when tons of traffic is coming from the south, headed east and north to Southeast High School. That allows the people coming from the west to jump in much more often then the huge line of cars to the south. Go and watch if you don’t believe me. I imagine the 14th and Superior situation could create a similar rush-hour snarl.
But the city (and state) is in love with roundabouts and this project is going to happen. The meeting is at the Belmont rec center, 1234 Judson St., and the time has been changed to 6 to 8 p.m.
Sometimes I think Lincoln’s theme song should be “Can’t get there from here” – it’s like traffic engineers gone wild with all the medians around here.
And parents of kids who go to Southeast High School, Sheridan Elementary School, Calvert Elementary School and Irving Middle School have definitely been singing that song a lot lately, as the routes to schools have dried up recently due to multiple roads under construction near those schools.
As one of my readers, Shawn Traudt, recently wrote to me,
Is it just me, or has the city stumbled upon the most sadistic way to mess with drivers who reside or commute between the areas bounded by 56th and 27th and South to Pioneers? Pioneers is or has been closed. The intersection of 48th & Pioneers, closed. Sheridan from 40th to Calvert and 27th to 33rd, closed. South Street blocked at 38th Street. I may even be missing some.
I’m one of the first to call for improvements to our infrastructure and these are needed projects, but some vision and planning around these projects would have been wonderful. The closure of Sheridan alone, has and continues to impact Calvert Elementary, Sheridan Elementary, Rousseau Elementary, Irving Middle, Southeast High, and Cathedral Schools. With all summer to have been working on these projects, they close the most critical sections during the school year!
I have two kids going to Southeast, and I can tell you, it is quite a journey getting there. Now, I strongly believe Lincoln needs to fix lots of streets – if you are a Lincoln native, you probably don’t realize just how bad of condition the streets are in here. I was recently in an oil patch – and only there are the roads this bad, and everybody is screaming about it out there.
So I asked city officials about this unusual confluence of construction around several schools. Thomas Shafer, design and construction section manager for the city, said the city generally tries not to close two adjacent streets within the same mile, which is why Van Dorn Street has remained construction free despite its condition. (There is some work being done on Van Dorn, however, but it appears to be utility-related, narrowing the street between about 26th and 29th.)
Shafer said when the projects were planned, reconstruction of the South Street bridge (as part of Antelope Valley) was scheduled to start in the fall of 2010 and be done by now. However, the first round of bidding only brought one extremely high bid, so it was re-bid. But since the electric lines (which carry our air conditioning energy) shouldn’t be out of service during times of high loads, the project then had to wait to start in the fall of 2011.
This wouldn’t have been a problem, because the city planned to have Sheridan Boulevard from 40th to Calvert complete before South Street began, but more of the underlying base on Sheridan needed repair than expected, and that project is now two to three weeks behind schedule.
Also, work on Pioneers Boulevard hasn’t gone as smoothly as hoped – as many private underground utilities are being found quite a ways from where records indicated they’d be, Shafer said.
And if that weren’t enough bad news, the opening of the intersection of 48th and Pioneers has been delayed because of the storm drainage needs discovered as the underground infrastructure gets exposed, he said.
But Shafer said two of the three north/south streets (33rd, 40th and 48th) have always remained open (never mind the east/west streets for now!) and Van Dorn has been unimpeded (well, except for those workers in orange out there) as well as “non-adjacent stretches” of South Street and Pioneers.
“While we all like to jump in our cars and drive straight to our destination, we ask for continued patience from Lincoln’s drivers has they work their way through and around the roadway construction,” Shafer said.
Traudt said this is an example of what happens with the city puts off needed infrastructure repairs for years, “and then is forced to do multiple, overlapping projects at the same time.”
“There is blame to be assigned over multiple administrations,” he said.
But Shafer is right, too: We Americans are kind of spoiled, and we definitely like to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, especially when gas is $3.59 a gallon. But we also desperately need to fix roads around here (maybe not Sheridan Boulevard, but that’s another blog), so we’re just going to have to, in the words of my mother, “suck it up.”
That’s my question, upon hearing that Mayor Chris Beutler is proposing to increase the wheel tax by $20 for cars (more for trucks) over the next three years.
One thing I learned while I was following the money being spent on the Antelope Valley Project a few years ago is that the city began diverting lots of wheel tax revenue to the project.
As of 2008, more than $12 million in wheel tax dollars had been funneled into the project — which irritated those who could see infrastructure elsewhere being neglected.
New roads were built in Antelope Valley, but other roads that were promised were not. When the wheel tax was bumped up $15 in 1995, city officials said they would widen Old Cheney Road from 70th to 84th streets, 56th Street from Old Cheney Road to Pine Lake Road and Pine Lake from 56th to Nebraska 2.
That never happened.
And before the Antelope Valley Project began, the city engineer promised it wouldn’t raid money from other street projects. Of course, it did.
And the city’s infrastructure shortfall grew — in 2008 city officials themselves said they had a $56 million shortfall of street work waiting to be done within the city limits. From 2004 to 2008, only one stretch of arterial street was resurfaced. Of course, now we’re finally seeing road work around town, in large part thanks to Obama’s stimulus dollars for shovel-ready projects.
So I guess if I were on the City Council and considering whether to grant Beutler this wheel tax increase, the question I’d ask is: Will any of the money go to Antelope Valley? Should it?
If you take a peek at the proposed comprehensive plan — good ol’ LP Plan 2040, they call it at city hall — you will see nothing about widening one of Lincoln’s most famous (or was it infamous?) thoroughfares.
Really? Our city planners — in their infinite wisdom — do not believe there will be a need to widen 27th Street (particularly from South Street to Highway 2) in the NEXT 30 YEARS?
Just to make sure I wasn’t cornfused, I asked one of the chief architects behind the plan about this. David Cary of the planning department responded with this email:
When we began the process of updating the Comprehensive Plan, we used the existing approved 2030 Comprehensive Plan and Transportation Plan as the starting point acknowledging that there is a wealth of useful material from that plan that should be carried forward to the new plan. With that step taken, we started with the list of street projects from the 2030 Plan and immediately paired that down to bring the list more in-line with our financial means as this new plan must be financially constrained for Federal review requirements.
What this step also meant was that since there was no 27th Street project on the list of projects in the 2030 Plan, we did not start with a 27th Street project on the project list to consider. Also, our committee did not propose including this specific project during our process for consideration. What was discussed and is still included in the new draft plan is the 2+1 interior street widening program, of which South 27th Street was a part of when it was widened to 3 lanes in the past. This program to widen interior streets to 3 lanes has been identified as a priority program in the new 2040 Plan and will continue to be built out through the year 2025. This focus on the 2+1 program will complete the road segments, like 27th Street, that have been identified for a long time now as needing the turn lane installed, but as a project that has minimal impact on existing neighborhoods.
I believe that’s a long way of saying, “It wasn’t in the last comp plan update, so it’s not going to be in this one, either.”
Apparently, Councilman Jonathan Cook’s legacy of keeping 27th Street’s girth in check is safe. I’m pretty sure if the city ever tries to widen 27th through the Country Club, you’ll find Cook lying across the street in protest. This, despite our city Traffic Engineer Randy Hoskins having said five years ago that 27th should be widened. For that, the council tried to fire him. Instead, another guy got laid off and Hoskins got a new title.
Back then, Hoskins told me, “If you look at the growth and to have basically very few arterials to move traffic through the middle of town, that’s not realistic for a community of this size.”
And so the silliness continues. For at least 30 more years, it appears.
Sheridan Boulevard, which runs through the lovely Country Club Neighborhood, is getting a makeover that will take several months.
Detour signs went up Monday and the road is being torn up between South Street and 27th Street. The city is doing a mill and overlay, new curbs and gutters and some new sidewalks from South Street all the way to Calvert Street. The $1.2 million project is being paid for with city wheel tax dollars.
I was surprised Sheridan rose to the top of the list of importance, given there are many, many worse-looking streets in Lincoln. But a few years ago, when I had the same question about why the road in front of my house made it on the city’s to-do list, I was told some streets are so far gone that it really doesn’t make sense to just resurface them. And the city can’t afford to totally redo them, so less damaged roads get done first. So there you go.
The project was originally scheduled to be done in 2010 with federal stimulus money until city officials realized they wouldn’t be able to meet the feds’ aggressive “shovel ready” deadlines given the Country Club Neighborhood’s recent national historic designation. The historic designation requires that the impact on the district be examined first.
The Sheridan Boulevard work is expected to last four or five months.
PART THREE IN A SERIES OF STORIES
BY DEENA WINTER
The streets division is overseen by a man who was brought in to clean up the place about three years ago: Scott Opfer.
Before Opfer got the job, he oversaw a different division of public works, traffic operations. One day in 2008, City Engineer Roger Figard asked for a meeting with the street maintenance laborers’ union head, Jeff Stump, and the union’s attorney, Gary Young.
Figard told Young he wanted to help fix the streets division, and had just the guy to do it: Opfer. He asked the union to cooperate with Opfer, to make things easier.
Opfer would now oversee both traffic and streets. He went from supervising about 25 employees to about 125. Right away, Opfer met with all the street employees and told them he would reform the place and have an open-door policy. He assured them he would protect the anonymity of employees and protect them from retaliation.
“The employees actually believed him,” Young said in an interview.
During that meeting, a couple of employees expressed concern about unsafe, old mowers like the Heckendorn mower – an old three-wheeled mower that tipped easily, had no roll cage, didn’t always turn right and was too high off the ground to stop from tipping with your feet. The department had modified it by removing large wings on the mower, making it unstable and easier to flip, according to the workers.
“This thing was a disaster in every way you can imagine,” Young said. “Opfer promised them he’d look into it.”
Some middle managers at the meeting disagreed, arguing the Heckendorn was safe. After the meeting, two of the men who had complained were headed out on a mowing job when they were told to go back to the main streets office at 901 N. Sixth St. and mow a huge, flat compound. They were told since they “don’t like the Heckendorn,” they could use push mowers. Young said they mowed four or five acres with 1980s era push mowers in the blistering heat. They said two supervisors drove by, laughing at them.
Opfer said he didn’t order them to push-mow the compound and in any case it wasn’t unusual for the compound to be mowed with push mowers.
Opfer has worked for the city for 26 years, and before he took over street maintenance, he’d heard stories about bullying and intimidation going on there.
“I have no doubt there were things that have gone on in the past,” Opfer said. “I’ve tried to promote management treating people fairly.”
He said he thinks he’s made progress on issues such as promotions. Laborers say managers promote people from “the family.” Opfer said he stopped that by sitting in on every promotional interview.
However, he said bullying is happening on both sides — both managers and laborers do it, particularly members of the blue-collar union, the Public Association of Government Employees, or PAGE. The middle managers are also members of a union, the Lincoln City Employees Association, or LCEA.
“Some union representatives do much more bullying than management does,” Opfer said in an interview Thursday. He said some PAGE members complain to him about the very laborers who are accusing managers of bullying. One employee recently talked to him about it during their basketball league, he said.
He said some of the laborers have done the same things they accuse supervisors of doing – such as showing coworkers sexually explicit images, as one worker, Ron Null, got fired for in 2008. But Opfer said he didn’t do anything about those other cases he’s because he would have been accused of retaliation.
“I’ve been walking on eggshells at times,” Opfer said. “We’ve been accused of turning our heads. We’re not gonna do that any longer.”
Opfer also volunteered that his daughter is good friends with Null’s wife – a well-known fact among the laborers — but said the fact that Null was fired anyway shows he’ll do the right thing regardless. But in the same breath, he acknowledged that he has publicly stated he didn’t think Null should have been fired. He said Null should have just been disciplined through the process where people get warnings first.
He said the vast majority of employees in the streets division don’t have any problems – but a small fraction take up most of his time.
“I’d like to come to work and not deal with crap,” he said – the exact same thing the laborers say they want.
As for the numerous ties between employees – whether by marriage, address or friendship – he said there is no nepotism going on, that all of the married couples met while working in the division and then got married, so there’s nothing that can be done about it.
As for the allegations that managers like Doug Hanson belittle and harass employees – sometimes brandishing a knife – Opfer said, “If I had proof that that occurred on my watch, I would definitely do something about it. They bring up things that happened a year or two, three years before I even became a manager.”
While Eric Kohles was on life support in a hospital, Opfer had a meeting with Kohles’ coworkers. Kohles was clinging to life after the Heckendorn tipped over and ended up on top of him in a drainage ditch just south of the Goodyear plant in Havelock.
He was apparently mowing near the ditch, which his former coworker, Roger Helmick, said was a bad idea, given the mower’s reputation for unpredictability and propensity to tip.
According to the laborers who were at the meeting, Opfer said, “I’m sorry I never did anything about that mower. They’re gonna pull Eric off life support. I’m very sorry.” But a few days later, Opfer had another meeting with the workers, and said he wasn’t referring to the Heckendorn mower, but a different old mower, and the fact that he should have surveyed the safety of the whole mowing program.
“I had never heard (of the) Heckendorn mower until the accident,” Opfer said. “I didn’t even know what a Heckendorn was.”
That conflicts with numerous employee accounts. The attorney for the PAGE union, Gary Young, said one of the leaders of the mowing crew specifically told Scott Opfer he should make sure that no inexperienced people were assigned to the ditch mowing operations, because it was far too dangerous for untrained and inexperienced operators.
Employees said Kohles had never been trained on the Heckendorn and had just been moved to mowing, and was sent out to the area along a steep drainage ditch without supervision. In fact, they say a little retaliation may have been involved in Kohles getting on the mower that day – the kind of retaliation routinely used – being assigned a tough job or a bad piece of equipment.
Young said employees reported that a supervisor had been complaining about a report from Kohles that another mower could not be used to complete a particular job the manager had assigned them to complete, and was angry at Kohles. The day of the accident, employees reported that this supervisor specifically ordered “make sure Eric (Kohles) is on the Heckendorn.” Employees reported that another piece of equipment that was assigned that day was to be operated by a more experienced employee, but this particular piece of equipment was very slow and would be delayed before reaching the job site.
As a result, Kohles was sent to the site to use the Heckendorn without any supervision. By the time the more senior employee arrived, the accident had already happened.
Opfer disputed that.
“Eric was not put on a crappy piece of equipment in retaliation,” he said.
Opfer also said the Heckendorn was perfectly fine to operate.
“They’re an appropriate piece of mowing equipment if you use them appropriately,” he said.
Then why did he apologize to Kohles’ coworkers?
“I went and I apologized to them because I felt very responsible for the whole thing,” Opfer said. “I just felt responsible for the fact that he was in an area that – in there where he mowed – I don’t believe he should have been mowing.”
He said normally, the workers don’t mow in that area.
“How did it get there that day? That’s a good question. I don’t know.”
To Young, the Kohles accident is emblematic of the problems in street maintenance. He represents public employee unions all over Nebraska – from cops to troopers to prison employees – and has never seen such bullying, interpersonal violence and neglect of employee safety.
“This is the worst managed operation I have ever seen,” he said. “People are bullied, retaliated against, and employees fear saying anything. It is no surprise to me that the culture that management has fostered there would lead to what happened.”
And even though the mayor’s chief of staff, Rick Hoppe, told the blue-collar workers not to lose faith, that the mayor’s office would try to help, Young said, “We have asked the mayor over and over again to deal with it. We have pled with his personnel director for years now. Everyone just shrugs their shoulders.”
After the Kohles accident, 11 employees filed a grievance with the city, claiming the city had created an unsafe working environment for Kohles by assigning him to work on an unsafe mower without proper training. They also accused the city of maintaining “a working culture in which employees are discouraged from raising concerns about safety, are humiliated when raising such concerns, and are specifically retaliated against in a number of ways when raising such concerns.”
They alleged managers would retaliate by criticizing them and assigning work “in a manner to punish employees.” They called for an independent investigation into the Kohles accident and whether any managers retaliate against employees who raise safety concerns.
“We just want to do our jobs”
Roger Helmick sees Kohles’ death as an example of what can happen in a culture where certain people get certain assignments, people are not always properly trained and supervised and equipment and jobs are assigned based on connections and vendettas.
Take his own story.
In January, he stood up when supervisors sent workers like him home after plowing snow from streets through the night. Their labor agreement says they cannot be forced to go home to avoid getting overtime – but the managers sent them home anyway.
He and others filed a grievance – and won. But it came with a price. The guy overseeing the entire public works department, Greg MacLean, sent a letter out thanking other street maintenance workers for not filing a grievance over the snow removal issue.
A day later, Roger Helmick got called into a boss’s office. He was told he was being moved to work on asphalt. He felt they were sending him a message – especially since he’d just been outfitted with new tools and a box that would fit his truck to finish concrete all summer.
Now suddenly, the plan had changed.
He believed his days were numbered. He took a vacation day the following day, a Friday, and barely slept all weekend. The next week, he called in to a phone line he says employees are told to use to report they’ll be out sick.
However, he just left a message saying, “I’ll be out” and didn’t leave his name. He said that’s not unusual – that employees are told to call that number if they’re going to be sick. And he said since supervisors like to play the recordings for each other and critique them for fun, he wanted to make his message short.
He went to the doctor for an ear problem he’d been battling, and got a doctor’s note. He left a message five days in a row, and on the fifth day, he got a letter from the public works director, saying “You failed to report to work” for five days, violating a city code that says if an employee is absent three or more days “without authorized leave” they “shall be deemed to have resigned.”
After nine years working for the city, he was out. The last sentence of the letter from MacLean said, “We request that you return all city property immediately.” The city has denied him a chance to appeal, since city officials claim he resigned.
Last year, Helmick was praised and featured in L Magazine for heading up the street maintenance division’s drive to raise $4,200 in contributions and 3,000 pounds of food for the Lincoln Food Bank. He says he was trying to help change negative perceptions of the division.
Of the whole situation, he often says, “We just want to come to work and do our jobs.”
Instead, now he’s looking for a job.
PART TWO IN A SERIES OF STORIES
BY DEENA WINTER
Word of the war going on in the streets department had made its way to the mayor’s office by 2009.
The mayor’s chief of staff, Rick Hoppe, met with dozens of street employees to talk about their concerns twice in 2009. First, he came alone. A couple weeks later, he brought along the city’s personnel director, Mark Koller.
“We’re here to learn,” Koller says on a tape recording of the meeting.
Employees told them story after story about harassment, hijinks and cliques that govern the streets division. A tidal wave of angry anecdotes and sad stories poured out in the Labor Temple – again.
A new employee described how he was screamed at, berated and belittled by supervisor Doug Hanson. The attorney for the union that represents the blue collar workers, Gary Young, said multiple employees say Hanson targets, intimidates and berates employees. One employee said Hanson pulled out a butterfly knife and began to spin it in front of an employee who came to his office asking for vacation time, Young said. One man underwent a long period of personal abuse by Hanson and his “crew” and reportedly lost 60 pounds from the stress of working on the crew, Young said.
That man told his story to Koller and Hoppe at the Labor Temple that day. He said he was not trained or told what to do and was left at work sites or in shops without instruction about two dozen times.
“I’m scared to death of my job,” he told them.
Other employees said the harassers would take tools away from them and tell them to sit in a truck – to set them up to get in trouble for not working.
Koller and Hoppe were also told about how members of this ruling “family” routinely hire friends and neighbors and bowling partners and surround themselves with allies who back them up, spy on employees for them and socialize together after hours.
There are a lot of connections between employees, most prominent among them: Asphalt crew worker Gary Weger is married to account clerk Iris Weger and District Supervisor Leroy Uglow lives with boss Scott Opfer’s secretary. And public works director Greg MacLean’s executive secretary is married to Kelly Sieckmeyer, who works in traffic operations and is a good friend of Opfer’s.
Employees says “the family” shares information about employees and makes it impossible for grievances to go anywhere without everybody finding out right away. After hearing about it at the Labor Temple, the personnel director said, “It sounds to me like Doug’s damn near hired everybody in this city… it goes deeper than I wanna admit,” Koller said. “If it’s that way, then by golly something needs to be changed.”
But Koller made no promises, saying he was only hearing one side of the story and it would take time to address the problems.
At the end of the meeting, Hoppe said there were “fairly serious things going on here” and promised to have weekly meetings with union president Jeff Stump and the union’s attorney to work on the issues they raised.
“Stay with us. Don’t lose faith,” Hoppe told the laborers. “We’re gonna try to make things right and do what we can to try and make it better.”
Weekly meetings between Young, Stump and Hoppe went on for awhile, but during one, Hoppe said the mayor’s office had taken some steps (like getting safety glasses for employees, as their contract allowed) and now it needed the union to take some steps in return — by making sure employees responded when called for snow removal. The atmosphere had gotten so bad that some men weren’t too eager to answer the call to work overtime.But later, Hoppe told Stump that in exchange for fixing the employee abuses, he wanted the union to agree to reduce their retirement match, as the mayor had long been pushing tall unions to do. Stump refused — he didn’t think it appropriate that a union be asked to make contract concessions in order to get the mayor’s office to clean up the rampant employee bullying and other abuse in a city department.
I asked Hoppe about that on Thursday, and initially he said he never made his help conditional on the union agreeing to a less generous retirement benefit, but later he called back to say, “I did probably make the connection between getting 9-7 (a lower retirement match) and other contract issues” but only because he’d helped the union heads get new boots and safety goggles, which was in their labor agreement. In other words, both were union issues.
Hoppe said all of the laborers’ allegations were looked into, but many were years-old stories and many couldn’t be verified. He did get the man who was being harassed moved to another job, and he noted that Null was fired for showing the sex tape. And although he’d told the employees that some of the issues – such as the married people and lovers working in the same division – would be a “layup” to fix, it wasn’t as easy as he thought, because “the other people involved have union rights” too.
“I can’t just fire someone,” Hoppe said.
In June 2010, Stump said Hoppe called him to his office to talk about a possible ordinance banning married couples and live-in lovers from working in the same division – something the employees wanted.
“He looked at me and said the law department is too busy to draft that ordinance and if you want us to get rid of Opfer and take care of other supervisors, you’re gonna have to take the 9 to 7 match (lower retirement benefits),” Stump said.
“I looked him straight in the eye and said, ‘No,’ ” Stump said.
He said that’s part of the reason his union decided to fight the city on the retirement issue. His union was the only union that held out on the retirement issue, and won.
But they paid a price. Talks with the mayor’s office were dead.
“It seemed like they empowered Opfer to treat us even worse,” Stump said.
The mayor’s office directed most questions to the personnel director, Mark Koller, who told me Thursday that the streets division has “far and away” the most problems of any city department. He said he’s concerned about the relationships between laborers and supervisors in the streets division.
“I’m pretty confident that when we get an issue, we do an investigation. If there’s nothing of substance, we don’t issue a report or a disciplinary action, we just say there’s no substance to this particular issue,” Koller said. “And that’s not always well received. People want immediate satistifaction and quite honestly, that’s not always available. We just can’t go in there with a heavy handed attitude and say, ‘You’re fired, you’re gone.’ Quite honestly, you get a whole lot of strikes at the plate before you’re out.”
And while Koller seemed empathetic to the workers at the Labor Temple, he now seems to have taken the managers’ side, saying he said he thinks the laborers have “more vendetta” and live in a “gotcha environment.”
“More often than not, when we do an investigation, we don’t find anything of substance – we find a lot of accusations, whining, personal situations.”
I asked Koller how employees can prove an incident happened when it’s a “he said, she said” situation?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know the answer. When we can substantiate them, that’s when we’ll take action. If three guys say it happened – is that enough? When an accusation comes in, they all sound alike. It could be scripted. I’m all for finding out (but) when the stories sound so much alike, it sort of makes you wonder, is there a setup going on? To get rid of people.”
He said he still believes there are enough honest supervisors who would say if they saw improper things happening.
Koller said he’s tried to get union representatives of both sides – the managers belong to another union – to sit down and try to work out their problems, but he said the blue-collar union refused.
“I wish I could just gather them all in a room and say ‘Why can’t we all play nice?’ ” Koller said. “It’s really getting to be a shouting match of no substance. I’m trying to figure our way out of the bag. I don’t have a good answer.”
As for the married couples and personal relationships that are rampant in the division, he said if he moved employees around, he’d be accused of retaliation.
“It’s not happy,” he said. “It’s not a happy place. But I’m not ignoring it.”
To read the first story in this series, click here.
Tomorrow: Scott Opfer runs the place — what does he say?