RED BANK: AFTER SCATHING REPORT, WHAT?

Business Administrator Ziad Shehady in front of the large-screen monitor he uses in staff meetings to track projects. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)

By JOHN T. WARD

Now that a scathing review of municipal operations has landed on their desks, what will Red Bank’s leaders do with it?

It won’t go into a drawer to be forgotten, says the newly hired official charged with implementing most of its recommendations. In fact, he says, change is already underway.

Shehady, center, with Mayor Pasquale Menna and their dogs, Sheba and Lily, at the Dog Days of Summer event in Marine Park last month. Below, Ken DeRoberts of Government Strategy Group. (Photos by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)

Based on “in-depth interviews” with 45 officials, staff and merchants, the Management Enhancement Report, touches on everything from the town’s form of government to the need to clip courtroom chairs together for better security.

Its findings weren’t heartening. Along the way, the review serves up numerous examples of “dysfunctionality” at borough hall, including “management by silo” resulting in poor coordination between departments; low morale; and a “culture” in which customer service wasn’t foremost.

The $32,500 report was written by Government Strategy Group, a consultancy whose chief executive officer, Ken DeRoberts, also oversaw the town government operations on an interim basis following the December retirement of borough administrator Stanley Sickels.

Now, the lion’s share of fixing things falls on Ziad Shehady, a 33-year-old former mayor of Springfield, in Union County, who became the retitled business administrator in May.

One of the report’s foremost recommendations, in fact, was changing the title of the top, unelected executive at borough hall and giving that person more authority along the lines of a private-sector chief executive officer, including the power to hire and fire without requiring council approval.

Council President Ed Zipprich said the analysis was “well-timed” to land just as Shehady was stepping into the job.

“It is going to be our road map to the future as we shape the future of Red Bank and make municipal government that much more friendly,” Zipprich said at a recent council meeting.

Mayor Pasquale Menna told redbankgreen that Shehady, who’s to be paid a base salary $152,000, “has the mandate to come up with recommendations on implementation.”

In a recent interview with redbankgreen in his fourth-floor office at 90 Monmouth Street, Shehady appeared to embrace the responsibility.

To anyone thinking the report will wind up gathering dust on a shelf, Shehady says, “definitely not.

“It’s already being actively used as part of my job as the administrator to take a look at borough operations critically and with an eye toward improvement,” he said.

The report made recommendations about what should be done, but “not how, and that’s on me,” he said.

Already, Shehady said, he has implemented a number of technology  changes he used in Springfield. For example, every department head is now using Asana project management software to track project and tasks, which gives Shehady a live, centralized view from his desk or cellphone of where priorities stand in their timeline, and the ability to anticipate funding needs, he said.

The GSG report itself has been broken down into projects and entered into Asana, Shehady said. That enables him to more efficiently use “backwards planning” to identify all the steps needed, for example, to implement GSG’s recommendation that the municipal court start accepting credit card payments for court fines. Getting to that end result, Shehady notes, requires scheduling a council resolution, the drafting of bid specifications and more.

A large computer monitor mounted on a wall in his office “is not for watching ‘The Price is Right,'” Shehady says, but for displaying the program when he’s got department heads or elected officials in for meetings.

It allows for an overview of “all these different moving parts that go into getting something done that typically are not thought of in a cohesive and chronological order in municipal government,” he said. The absence of that perspective is “why oftentimes people are either rushing to get something done or things fall through the cracks.”

The large screen is also helpful in calling up Google Earth Pro when discussing infrastructure, and another project on his to-do list, Shehady said, is adding geographic information system (GIS) layers to the app that will show the placement of water and sewer lines, the borough’s tree inventory and more for quick desktop reference. Having available, at a click, the age, depth and more data about underground assets “enables you to make “good and data-drive decisions from a funding perspective and a work-prioritization perspective,” he said.

“There’s been a lot of silos here in the way departments fed information up and information was fed down. Having things centralized through an administrator who’s the manager — it’s not micromanaging, it’s good management oversight, making sure that everyone is talking and [information] is being funneled appropriately,” Shehady said.

A resident’s complaint about, say, a stop sign, might be tracked on the software “if it’s symptomatic of a larger issue,” he said. For most such matters, the borough has an online ticket-submission system residents can use to request action, he noted.

Shehady said a host of other changes recommended by GSG had already been adopted, including the hiring of a consultant to seek grants for borough projects and the implementation of five-year budget and ratables forecasting software.

Shehady said he’s also used his knowledge of information technology to hasten resolution of one of the GSG report’s more glaring findings: that the borough had amassed a backlog of some 9,000 permits requiring close-out inspections. “Who is responsible for this?,” the report asked. “Who is accountable for this?”

Following the report’s release, Menna called the backlog “inexcusable” and said it was “never brought to [the] attention” of elected officials by the “well-paid professionals” they relied on at borough hall.

Shehady declined to discuss who might have been responsible prior to his arrival, instead focusing his answers to questions on what’s being done now to whittle the number down. By sorting the permits in a spreadsheet, Shehady said, many of the open permits have been closed without the need for on-site inspections. As an example, he said, a home might have had a file for an uninspected water heater from 20 years ago, even though the device was again replaced and inspected 10 years ago.

“We’ve found some instances of that,” Shehady said, and officials have been able to “whittle down” the number of permits without leaving borough hall. In addition, other permits were closed out because recent changes in state law mean that hot water heaters, siding and roofing no longer need to be inspected.

Still, eliminating the backlog will require “more man-hours” to accommodate homeowners who say they aren’t available to allow an inspector in during regular business hours. “If you don’t want the budget to go up, if you don’t want to spend a lot more money on inspections, then you don’t schedule the inspectors. That’s how you don’t deal with the cost of that.”

Another of the GSG’s recommendations is out of the administrator’s hands: a change in the form of government, which the report saw as one reason the town suffers from “management by silo.” It’s up to the council to decide if it wants to embark on a charter review, as suggested by the report, Shehady said.

The council’s two Republicans, Mark Taylor and Mike Whelan, were critical of the form of government even prior to the report’s completion, and have launched a petition drive to change both the form and the way in which elections are conducted. They are not seeking re-election in November.

Shehady said he wasn’t concerned about the report’s characterization of borough hall as as place of low morale. He said he’d met with nearly all employees and found them eager to do good work.

“I am confident that we can motivate people and get things done,” he said. “You learn from the past; you don’t live in the past. We have to find the path forward, and nothing in here tells me that can’t be done.”