Firing for political gain?

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Expect the Republican entry in next spring's mayor's race to bring up layoffs instigated last month by Democratic Mayor Buddy Dyer. The reason? The terminations make it appear that former mayor Glenda Hood, a Republican, was running a fat, inefficient government.

"Sometimes in an effort to make yourself look better, you make your predecessor look worse," says Orange County Republican Chairman Lew Oliver, who was still mum two weeks ago on who the GOP might run against Dyer. "The layoffs could have been an exaggerated response to make it appear that the mayor was responding to disastrous, catastrophic events."

One of those events is the $20 million deficit anticipated for the city's budget next fiscal year, which many have blamed on Hood. The 151 terminations -- and another 80 vacancies that won't be filled -- are expected to save the city $11.8 million next year.

City Hall observers are grumbling that the 151 firings could have been handled by swapping around personnel when employees quit or retired. Dyer says the city's attrition rate was "virtually zero."

"People won't quit their jobs in a bad economy," he says.

Dyer is right on one hand. Orlando's attrition rate was 5.7 percent for the 2002 fiscal year, down nearly three percentage points from the previous year. Even so the turnover rate represents 185 employees -- 30 more workers than were unceremoniously escorted from City Hall in June.

Couldn't the city have re-assigned employees so nobody had to be fired? Commissioner Patty Sheehan says some long-time managers like Bill Chamberlin, who has worked in streets and drainage for 33 years, volunteered to retire if it would spare rank-and-file employees. But the Dyer administration chose to overlook Chamberlin, preferring to fire employees the mayor considered expendable.

"There were specific areas we wanted to trim," Dyer says, pointing out that Facility Management bore the brunt of the "position eliminations" (as city officials call them), booting 26 employees.

In Dyer's defense, even some remaining city employees are saying the terminations were warranted, noting that a serious City Hall purge hadn't occurred since at least the Frederick administration. "Many of these people were my friends," says one employee. "But how do you eliminate some measure of dead-wood job positions when there's people still in them?"

Yet even Sheehan, a fellow Democrat who helped elect Dyer, thinks the firings were bad policy. She says they prove that Dyer is listening too much to advisers like Wayne Rich -- who headed the city's transition team and was promoted to city attorney in mid-June -- and David Dix, Dyer's chief of staff, whom Sheehan described as a "pit bull."

"These are two people who aren't as well-versed in the nuances of city government," she says.

If efficiency was the goal, Sheehan adds, the city has failed. Since the firings, she says, city employees have been slow to respond to constituent demands. "The layoffs didn't make me any more efficient."

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