In wake of scathing report, new Baltimore HR department boss says agency has changed

Mayor Catherine Pugh and the interim director of Baltimore’s human resources department defended the agency and its progress after an investigation by the city’s inspector general documented a “culture of fear.”

Quinton Herbert, the city’s labor negotiator, took over the agency Aug. 6 at Pugh’s request after the previous department head, Mary Talley, resigned when a preliminary version of the inspector general’s report was produced in July.

Herbert said in an interview that there have been significant staffing changes at the agency since this summer. While he said he was not immediately aware of the report’s early findings, he quickly began to hear of problems in the agency from his new staff — and what he heard was “disconcerting.”

“The last thing an employee should worry about is workplace bullying or whether they're going to endure ridicule,” he said.

The inspector general’s investigation, based on interviews with more than 40 witnesses and released Tuesday, found that department leaders ridiculed and demeaned subordinates, employees in other city agencies and members of the public. Employees told investigators they were reluctant to share new ideas and lived in fear of being fired or retaliated against.

The inspector general also questioned a smoking cessation program featuring actors dressed as a cigarette butt and a tobacco leaf and the $425,000 cost of the 2017 WorkBaltimore job fair backed by Pugh. Investigators said the department hadn’t gathered enough data to show whether the event was effective at getting people into work.

Pugh defended the job fair at a news conference Wednesday, saying it encompassed a month of activities and involved 880 workshops.

“People were lined up outside the door of the convention center,” she said. “People were saying, ‘Thank you.’ People were actually crying because this was the first time something like this had happened in Baltimore city.”

Herbert declined Tuesday to provide specifics of staffing changes, citing personnel rules, but said, “There have been major leadership changes since the departure of Ms. Talley.”

He said he moved quickly to foster a more open climate among the department’s 70 employees, who provide services to agencies across city government.

“We have had more team-building exercises and have an open-door policy so communication has flowed more freely in the department,” Herbert said. “Aside from building a collaborative workforce within, I’ve also extended myself to other agency heads to restore relationships there and build camaraderie.”

That contrasts sharply with the environment Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming said she found, with department employees afraid to take part in her investigation.

“We were meeting people at various locations,” Cumming said. “It was not like people were happily coming into the office.”

Talley has declined to comment on the investigation’s findings.

Herbert wouldn’t say whether he’s applied to lead the department permanently, but said the mayor has given him the authority he needs for now to make changes. In addition to a director, the city is seeking to hire a new chief for the department’s recruitment division, according to a job listing.

Cumming said the inspector general’s office has heard from employees in the wake of the investigation and “has received positive feedback about the changes that have taken place.”

Herbert said he has sought to address the report’s other findings and expects the smoking cessation program will be overhauled. The cigarette butt and tobacco leaf characters — dubbed Smokey Crush and Leaf — probably won’t be a part of it, he said.

Herbert said he also acted to cut the cost of the second WorkBaltimore fair, which was held in September, bringing the price tag this year down to $290,000 while expanding the event at the Baltimore Convention Center to two days and getting more job-seekers in the door. He said less was spent on marketing and on a reception for sponsors.

The department hired a vendor for the 2018 fair who gathered information electronically, rather than on paper, he said, but officials are still analyzing the numbers. Cumming said she’s recommended that the results of this year’s event be audited “as quickly as possible.”

At the news conference, Pugh held up a document containing preliminary findings from the 2018 event. Her staff declined to share the document, saying it wasn't finalized.

A 28-page report by the human resources department, obtained by The Baltimore Sun, sought to herald the 2017 job fair as a major success. The report last December described the one-day convention as “unprecedented” and said 100 employers and 2,072 job seekers attended. But it acknowledged that officials struggled to gather information from participants. The organizers didn’t get data from a quarter of participants because of internet outages on the day of the fair, according to the report.

Surveyed 90 days after the fair, job seekers, city agencies and other employers in many cases were “unresponsive or declined to provide the requested information.” The responses the department did gather show that many people who got jobs weren’t still in them at the time of the survey. Of the 128 job-seekers who responded, 12 percent said they accepted jobs after attending the event and just 7 percent said they were still in those jobs when contacted for the survey.

The 10 city agencies that responded to the survey said 32 people accepted job offers and 16 were still employed. Twenty other employers responded, saying 79 job offers were accepted and 65 people were still employed.

Even before the inspector general’s report was released, the human resources department was facing questions over the effectiveness of the job fair. At a budget hearing in May, Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer asked Talley for hiring numbers.

“I don’t know how many people are employed,” Talley said initially, before citing some of the numbers from the department’s report.

In an interview Tuesday, Schleifer questioned how reliable the figures were, saying, “It didn’t seem like they had concrete answers.”

Schleifer said the inspector general’s findings show the importance for leaders at all levels of city government to be held accountable for their work.

“Anybody who's in a position of power, someone who’s overseeing employees, they need to operate with the highest ethical and moral standards,” he said. “They need to ensure they’re treating their employees right.”

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