Who is that one man? Ed Owens, who until two weeks ago was the #2 man in Texas' adult prison system. The Houston Chronicle called him TYC's new "Czar," while the Dallas Morning News offered this hagiography soon after he was appointed. According to Pierson, Governor Perry wants to keep Owens the lone man in charge:
Gov. Rick Perry wants the one-person leader structure to be permanent, said spokesman Ted Royer. He is working with lawmakers to have an amendment added to a bill that would make the agency accountable to one governor appointee who works full time, rather than the current part-time board, also appointed by the governor, Royer said.Shifting oversight from a larger board to one person appointed by the governor - any person, any governor - is a bad idea. Boards aren't useless if the Governor doesn't appoint useless board members. If you don't believe me, go read Patricia Kilday Hart describe how much good Harry Whittington did on the TDCJ board. As Isela Guterrez said to Pierson, "having fewer boardmembers reduces democracy.”
But it may be that putting all that power in this particular fellow is a bad idea. (I wouldn't be the first to say it.) At least I see the outline of storm clouds on the horizon as a result of his appontment, and I don't think he should be granted autocratic power. Here's the case why:
1. So far Owens has shown a tendency to cover up rather than honestly discuss TYC's problems with the Legislature.
Owens told the joint committee convened to oversee TYC that children in the agency's charge were safe, then a week later the US Department of Justice comes out with a report that declares, at the facility they investigated, in fact they are not. What does that say about Mr. Owens' credibility when he makes such assertions? Given all the other evidence, plus the fact that he'd barely been appointed when he said it, to me his statements were non-credible on their face.
2. More investigation needs to be done to discover whether Owens covered up sex abuse allegations at his last job.
Last year TDCJ settled a civil suit that alleged, in part, that Mr. Owens knew about allegations of sexual abuse by a high-level employee and did not do anything about it. Owens will have to be an amazing leader to overcome this recent baggage, given what TYC is going through. (I know a couple of reporters are on the trail and predict the story will be covered in the mainstream media in the coming week.) That history makes him the wrong leader at this historical moment to instill trust among employees, the Legislature and the public that additional scandals won't be covered up again. It's unwise, IMO, for the Governor to put all his eggs in Mr. Owens basket, and I hope he'll reconsider when he gets back from the Middle East. I didn't understand the appointment in the first place. Let's face it, it's not like TDCJ was particularly well managed while he was there!
3. An imperious management style won't encourage communication to let management identify and prevent problems.
Owens' first communication to TYC employees as a manager was to send out a letter putting 4,700 people on notice that they may be fired if they don't shape up. His second communique' was to tell them all not to talk to the press! Between these two ill-considered epistles, this was incredibly stupid and bodes poorly for Owens' near-term employee relations. Most TYC employees are trying hard. They're underpaid and work in unsafe, understaffed environments where nobody knows if your workmate will show up the next day. In that kind of alienated setting, you don't send everybody a letter extolling your own virtues and criticizing thousands of people you've never met.
In addition, Owens' new "rehabilitation plan" apparently hasn't done much to improve Owens' employee relations. Wrote one anonymous Grits' commenter in response:
Ed starts off the rehabilitation plan with a lie...he says he listened attentively to the concerns of staff. I work in central office and I haven't even seen Ed yet, much less had a chance to discuss my concerns with him. (And I want to know how he believes he's listened to field staff when he later notes he's been to ONE of the troubled facilities.)If you read through Grits' recent comments, you'll find many such digruntled missives from average TYC employees who feel unappreciated, caught in the middle, proud of what they do, but disgusted by everything they're learning (or seeing confirmed) about their agency. The most important job of an executive director is to lead those employees and turn them into a cohesive team. By all appearances, no one is trying to do that, yet.
Frankly, pretty much everything I've learned about what the agency has been doing (or having done to it) in the last few weeks has come from the newspaper and the blogs. Executive management isn't talking to staff that I can see...not about our concerns and not about what the agency is doing. We're mushrooms...keep us in the dark and feed us manure.
I don't mean Owens needs to go hand out cookies to case workers and JCOs, but visiting one facility and calling it "feedback" won't cut it either. Some sort of communication forum and vehicle for feedback is needed for employees to express their grievances. Hell, if I were Ed Owens I'd launch my own blog to explain to employees and the public what TYC is doing to transform itself and why, and to give employees a vehicle to anonymously ask the same types of questions being raised lately in Grits' comments.
And speaking of Grits comments, see the ones here, here, here, here and here for TYC employees weighing in on these topics.