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A COG on the heal.

Byline: Edward Russo The Register-Guard

Five months ago, change slapped Bob Swank, the longtime associate director of the Lane Council of Governments.

Swank said LCOG's new executive director, Brenda Wilson, handed him a letter with a severance agreement. She told him either to accept it or be fired, he recalled.

"I was shocked by the manner of it," Swank said, "the disrespect."

Wilson disputes that version of the meeting. She says she fired Swank and gave him the severance in exchange for him agreeing not to sue LCOG over his dismissal.

Either way, showing Swank the door was the first of many moves Wilson has made since she took the helm in July to shake up the low-profile, Eugene-based, 174-employee government agency.

Wilson says she inherited a $1 million-plus shortfall between revenues and expenses. It forced her to lay off employees and to ask workers for concessions to help in extricating the agency from its money problems.

Wilson restructured upper management at LCOG. And she's put an historic LCOG-owned property on the market in order to pay off debt.

Wilson, who previously worked as the city of Eugene's intergovernmental relations manager, was hired for $121,915 a year by the LCOG board of directors to replace George Kloeppel, who retired after being the executive director for 31 years.

Swank had been the associate director for 34 years. He had worked at LCOG for nearly 40 years.

Kloeppel said he has only heard "bits and pieces" of what has happened at LCOG since he left, and does not know why Wilson fired Swank.

But Kloeppel said he wished Swank would have had the chance to leave LCOG more gracefully.

Swank contributed greatly to LCOG, Kloeppel said, such as creating a geographic information system in the 1970s, a forerunner of LCOG's present Regional Land Information System, or RLID, a popular online property database.

LCOG Board Chairman Chris Pryor said the board chose Wilson to bring "a new focus" to the organization. In some ways, LCOG had become stagnant after so many years under the same management, he said.

"LCOG had been chugging along for a very long time," said Pryor, a Eugene city councilor. "Every once in a while, leadership needs to take a serious look to see if the organization is fulfilling its mission and whether it's operating as it should be. That had not happened for a long time."

A change also was needed because local elected leaders and other public officials thought LCOG was taking more of an independent as opposed to collaborative approach on joint projects with its member governments.

"Some local leaders were concerned that they were overstepping their bounds," Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy said.

Working behind the scenes

Most Lane County residents are unfamiliar with LCOG, but it has existed for 67 years. It's a major downtown Eugene employer and is well-known to local politicians and government employees.

The council employs planners, technology experts, public loan specialists and other workers who labor on a contract basis for local governments and nonprofit groups around Lane County, including cities, public utilities, and school and park and recreation districts.

In Lane County, 29 local governments - including Eugene, Springfield, Lane County, Creswell and Florence - belong to the council, paying annual dues based on their size.

Many of these entities pay LCOG dues for its staffs' expertise in land use, transportation and other areas. The work, plus state and federal grants, produces revenue for LCOG to cover the costs of its government services division, mainly personnel expenses.

Examples of LCOG's recent work include public outreach during the design phase of the Whilamut Passage/Interstate 5/Willamette River bridge project; the development of an online graffiti-reporting program for Eugene and Springfield; and arranging for an $8.3 million federal stimulus grant to bring broadband communications capability to schools, medical facilities and government offices in Lane, Douglas and Klamath counties.

Most of LCOG's 174 employees work in its Senior and Disabled Services division. It is funded by state and federal dollars and runs programs for senior citizens and disabled people, such as senior meals and abuse and neglect reporting.

The council is overseen by a board of directors appointed to the posts by the agency's client governments.

Getting some answers

Wilson, 49, is a graduate of Southern Illinois University with degrees in resource management and law.

Wilson has worked as a private practice attorney in the Midwest and on the East Coast. She's also worked for the Oregon Water Resources Department and as interim administrator and manager for the policy division of the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System.

Before going to LCOG, Wilson was the city of Eugene's liaison to other local governments and public agencies, including LCOG. Her duties included lobbying for the city in Salem and Washington, D.C.

Even before she took her new job, Wilson says she had begun questioning the way LCOG managed its finances.

The city of Eugene and other council members had concerns about the dues they had to pay to LCOG, and LCOG's billing structure, she said. When they asked the council about those things, Wilson said, members often "couldn't get a straight answer" from the agency, including from Swank.

Wilson also questioned why LCOG took on debt by taking out loans secured by its two buildings in Eugene and one in Springfield.

Soon after taking the job, Wilson said she learned that LCOG's government services division was facing a shortfall between its revenues and expenses.

These and other concerns about the way financial matters were handled led her to fire Swank within two weeks of becoming LCOG executive director, she said.

In a September memo to employees, Wilson said that "information regarding our finances was not as it seemed," partly because "the budget was presented in a way to make it appear that LCOG was in better financial shape that it was."

LCOG had borrowed money using its three buildings as collateral, Wilson said.

Some of the loan proceeds went to making improvements for LCOG tenants in the buildings, but the council also used some of the loans to pay for ongoing operations, Wilson said.

That practice allowed LCOG to avoid making layoffs and other budget cuts, something that other public agencies have had to do in recent years as their revenues were constricted, she said.

Also, in some cases, Wilson said that prior to her arrival, "misleading information had been repeatedly presented" to the board and members.

Wilson's memo did not name Swank, but the budget was among his main responsibilities.

Former employee responds

Swank, 64, said Wilson's memo "sensationalizes things" and was unfair to him because other LCOG managers helped him on the budget.

A budget committee of the board of directors and the directors themselves also had final say over how the council spent its money, Swank said.

Wilson's memo is "not an accurate statement," he said. "It implies a lot of things, and it seems to exaggerate and create a picture of a bigger problem."

Swank's wife, Colene Doll, also worked for LCOG for several years. She left the agency in October, upset with how her husband was treated.

Swank's annual salary was $118,044.

Wilson and Swank declined to disclose how much Swank received as severance, saying that it's confidential.

Pryor, the LCOG board chairman, said the board stands by Wilson's conclusions about the way the budget was handled. Pryor admits the board "could have been more engaged than it was" about the council's budget practices.

By October, Wilson said, she had learned that annual expenses were running $1.1 million ahead of revenues.

To close the gap, Wilson laid off five employees in late November and took other money-saving steps, including trimming janitorial service at the agency's Park Place Building from five days a week to two days.

But that only cut the gap in half. Wilson needed the help of the Employees Association, the labor union that represents government services workers and supervisors in Senior and Disabled Services.

The union responded by agreeing to wage and benefit concessions, including postponing until next July a 1.5 percent pay raise that was supposed to begin Dec. 1 and having members pay more for their health insurance, Wilson said.

The gap now is a more manageable $120,000, she said.

"I'm so proud of staff," Wilson said.

No more layoffs expected

The layoffs were difficult for council employees, she said.

"The staff here feels like family, and some of the people who had been laid off had been here a long time," Wilson said.

But, she said, LCOG had to look at what "we could live without and what we could afford."

Employees may worry about the possibility of more layoffs, but Wilson said she doesn't foresee that "as long as we keep on track to improve our services for our members and our clients."

Wilson has restructured upper management of the government services division. The position of associate director, which Swank had occupied, has been eliminated. In July, Wilson said she fired LCOG's payroll clerk because of "discrepancies on her time cards."

With the layoffs, firings and other staff turnover, LCOG now has 10 fewer workers than it did when Wilson came in.

The council has put one of its buildings up for sale - the historic Schaefers Building on the southeast corner of 10th Avenue and Willamette Street.

The building, on the market for $4.5 million, houses the Senior and Disabled Services division.

Because of a loan the agency took out against the building five years ago, LCOG owes $2.6 million on the property. The council purchased the building 21 years ago for $2.1 million.

The building

is too small for its staff and elderly and disabled clients, and it lacks parking, Wilson said.

If LCOG is able to sell the building, the agency will rent another office for Senior and Disabled Services in Eugene or Springfield, she said.

"We could provide better accommodations for our staff and better services for our clients by renting," Wilson said. "We can get a bigger bang for our buck by renting instead of owning real estate."

LCOG board members said Wilson appears to be taking the right steps to improve the agency.

She "already has built an incredible trust with the elected officials that she interacts with, and with (LCOG) employees," said Greg James, a board member and purchasing and print services director for Springfield Public Schools. "She is doing an incredible job."


Headquarters: Park Place Building, 859 Willamette St.

Role: Provides planning, technology, transportation, administration, financial and other services to local governments in Lane and other counties; also serves as the area agency on aging through its Senior and Disabled Services division

Employees: 174, with 115 in Senior and Disabled Services and 59 in government services and administration

Annual budget: $32 million

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Title Annotation:Local News; A new leader is shaking up an intergovernmental agency that had been in the red $1 million a year
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Dec 31, 2012
Previous Article:2012: Our moments.
Next Article:Dancing with pride.

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