Pressure on Public Works

Dissatisfaction with director, tensions in department come to light
Friday, October 15, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:40 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Two months after being reprimanded by the Boone County Commission, Public Works director David Mink is still trying to patch up his department.

Significant bumps in the road remain: Northern District Commissioner Skip Elkin and county road workers question Mink’s leadership and want him fired, and Mink’s maintenance operations manager, Chip Estabrooks, is on the fence.

Gregg Mullanix, a heavy equipment operator and union steward of Laborers International Local 773, said disregard for employees is Mink’s biggest flaw.

“Mink approaches everything with an attitude that is ‘I don’t give a damn about you; we’re going to do it this way,’” said Mullanix, a 20-year department veteran. “That’s just a management-style thing, and I accept it. But if you get it enough, why should we care as employees?”

Elkin has the same concern. “I can honestly tell you that I have not spoken with any public works employee that respects the top management at Public Works,” Elkin wrote in an e-mail to the Missourian. “That is a serious problem that still exists in the department today.”

Mink said that since his reprimand, commissioners and others have advised him to improve employee relations and become more involved in daily operations.

“There is always room to improve,” Mink said, “but you can only improve if you know what you need to improve on. I know that now.”

The reprimand

Commissioners in a closed meeting Aug. 19 reprimanded Mink, who earns $90,043 and gets a vehicle allowance of about $4,000 each year.

Only the vote from that meeting was made public: Presiding Commissioner Keith Schnarre and Southern District Commissioner Karen Miller voted to reprimand Mink. Elkin, however, dissented, saying he would prefer to fire Mink. Commissioners and Mink refused at the time to elaborate on the reprimand.

“This is a private matter,” Mink said then. “It shouldn’t be in the papers.”

Hoping candor might restore his credibility, however, Mink recently broke his silence.

“I don’t want anyone to think I am a liar,” he said. “I’m not. Anyone who knows me well will tell you that I am a very honest person.”

Mink said he was reprimanded for denying that he attended a public works meeting — though others say he did — when officials decided to inflate rock costs for chip-and-seal projects in 2002 and 2003 to cover delivery costs not

included in the original bid from Boone Quarries.

Mink doesn’t recall attending the meeting but said it’s possible he was present for part of it. He said he wasn’t in the dark about the arrangement but insists it didn’t cost taxpayers additional money.

“I should have asked more questions about exactly what that arrangement was,” Mink said, “and I should have realized that this was something I should have brought forward to the commission.”

Mink said he was also reprimanded for giving the Columbia Daily Tribune the name and phone number of a laborer engaged in a dispute with his department. He allowed Estabrooks to take the heat for his deed and was accused of threatening to reprimand Estabrooks for it.

Again, Mink said, he has no memory of threatening Estabrooks but regrets his handling of the situation.

“It was a mistake to give the out the name of that worker, and I didn’t own up to it, and I should have,” Mink said. “I regret it. I hate it. I don’t like that it happened.”

Mink considered sharing both the text of his reprimand and the commission’s formal evaluation of his performance. After talking to commissioners, however, he chose not to do so.

Commissioners refuse to directly discuss Mink’s reprimand, but Schnarre and Miller expressed unqualified support for him in a recent meeting with Missourian reporters.

“We’re happy with the improvements that he’s making right now,” Miller said.

Elkin declined to comment at that meeting but cried foul in an e-mail afterward.

“What message we were sending to all the other 350-plus employees of this county?” Elkin asked. “I felt a reprimand did not go far enough because of the serious nature of the offense.”

“We have a very difficult river to navigate in our Public Works Department,” Elkin wrote, but he refused to elaborate on the reprimand, citing legal concerns.

Tense relations

Minutes from commission meetings show that Mink’s management troubles employees. James Csolak told commissioners during a February discussion of a new labor contract that for the first time in 6½ years, morale among fellow laborers was so low that he loathed coming to the job he once loved.

Interviews with union stewards illustrate Mink’s relationship with subordinates has been tenuous since he became director in 2000 and deteriorated further during labor negotiations. During those talks, which started in late 2003 and carried through the winter, disagreements between Mink and workers were rehashed.

Stewards said Mink’s hostility toward workers is a problem.

“Mr. Mink does not want you in his office, period,” steward Gordon McCune said. “He’s said different, but if you try to set up an appointment with him, you are not going to get it. He wants his middle management to talk to us.”

Mink recognizes his tarnished image among laborers and said he wants to turn a corner.

“The union negotiations were tense, and I am sure we were all guilty of personalizing the issues,” Mink said. “But I have no bones to pick with the workers. They work very, very hard.”

Mink said he’s coming in earlier for “face time” with workers and visiting job sites during the day.

McCune wonders if it’s too little too late.

“He’s been declawed,” McCune said. “How effective can he be as a boss?”

Mink has the added challenge of repairing his relationship with Estabrooks. The two now meet weekly to improve communication.

“It’s hard to move forward,” Mink said. “But we’re working on developing a level of trust where we can work effectively together. We may not be there yet, but I think things are improving.”

Estabrooks is reserving judgment.

“I am not a meeting person. I am a doing person,” said Estabrooks. “People gain my trust through their actions, not by what they say.”

“We all have to prove ourselves,” he added. “We’re only as good as what we do tomorrow.”

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