PICTURE THIS: Salary increases between 22% and 368% for Keller appointed unclassified senior management executives, no job descriptions for executive staff, no resumes, no background checks, no minimum qualification, no performance goals, no performance evaluations, no pay ranges, conflicts of interest, pre-determined hiring with only one applicant. All these scenarios and violations of the city’s personnel rules and regulations were found to be pervasive by the City of Albuquerque’s Accountability in Government Oversight Committee in a Special Audit conducted by the Office of Internal Audit (OIA) on the City’s “Hiring Practices Involving Unclassified Employees”. The audit was released on October 19, 2022.
The Special Audit conducted by the Office of Internal Audit (OIA) contains an Executive Summary with recommendations. An edited version of the Executive Summary is as follows:
The City’s use of unclassified positions increased 97% percent, from 314 to 620, in the period of Fiscal Year 2015 to Fiscal Year 2022. This increase [dramatically outpaces] the modest 14% increase in the City’s total funded full-time employee positions. While the City’s annual budget details the total number of budgeted full-time positions, it does not indicate how many of those positions are classified and unclassified, which would provide for greater transparency and oversight.
During the period, 83 employees moved from classified to unclassified positions, receiving salary increases between 22% and 368% . … [A] number of senior management and deputy director employees received salary increases, though their job duties for these positions did not change, and the increases were not based on their job performance. The majority had no record justifying the increase, and none of the employees tested had a completed performance evaluation on file during the period
Although not required, job descriptions were not created for 53% of unclassified positions tested, for which annual salaries totaled $4.3 million. Additionally, only 21% of positions tested had an application and/or a resume on file related to the position, and only 13% had evidence demonstrating verification that the applicant met the minimum requirements. While 9 positions were publicly advertised, only 4 had record of being interviewed.
Lastly, 67% had neither a Background Investigation Disclosure and Consent Form nor a Release of Liability & Felony Identification form on file. Without job descriptions, it is uncertain whether unclassified positions were created to validate paying some employees higher salaries though their job duties and responsibilities were similar in complexity to that of existing classified positions. This, combined with the inconsistencies in hiring practices, may perpetuate the perception that the City’s hiring process for unclassified positions is unfair and susceptible to favoritism, both of which can impact the City’s ability to hire and retain talent
Requirements for unclassified appointments do not exist to ensure that candidates possess the appropriate background, experience, and qualifications, nor to ensure that candidates are free from conflicts of interest. Due to the lack of policies, departments may follow but are not required to follow the prescriptive rules required of classified positions.
As a result, these processes are often inconsistently applied and can be expedited, as formal or competitive hiring is not required. Further, the Merit System and Personnel Policy Ordinance have not been modified since 2010, and the City’s current classification and compensation structure has not been re-evaluated since its inception in 1999.
Based on the released audit, the Accountability in Government Oversight Committee made the following recommendations:”
“City Administration should:
Continue efforts to conduct a classification and compensation study.
Evaluate whether provisions of the Merit Ordinance should be modified to be better reflective of the City’s current hiring activities.
Enhance collection and maintenance of classification detail for budgeted and filled positions.
Require that requests for pay adjustments for employees in unclassified positions be supported by a written justification explaining the business need for the salary increase.
Develop policies to ensure that salaries for the unclassified positions are not greater than that to which the employee would be entitled under the City’s classified pay plan or benefits schedule; develop policies to prevent the creation of unclassified positions to validate paying employees higher salaries when their job duties and responsibilities were similar in complexity to that of existing classified positions.”
The here link to review: Audit No. 22-116 HRD Citywide Hiring Practices Involving Unclassified Employees
CITY HALL REACTION TO AUDIT
The Keller Administrations Human Resource Department responded to the audit recommendations expressing a level of hostility and had this to say in a statement:
“[The “fundamental purpose of an unclassified position is to provide flexibility for the Administrations in implementing goals and objectives during the administrative term. … Maintaining that flexibility allows for the innovation and efficient implementation of new ideas.”
The link to the full, unedited, Albuquerque Journal report is here:
CLASSIFIED VERSUS UNCLASSIFIED
There are 5,947 City Hall employees that are “classified employees” who are covered by the city’s personnel rules and regulations. Classified employees have vested rights including retirement benefits, sick leave and annual leave benefits and can only be terminated for cause. Disciplinary actions such as suspensions, demotions and terminations can be appealed by classified employees to the City Personnel Board. The City of Albuquerque pays an average of $17.61 an hour to City Hall employees or $36,628.80 a year depending on the positions held and required education level and training levels. (40-hour work week X 52 weeks in a year = 2,080 hours worked in a year X $17.61 paid hourly = $36,628.80)
There are 589 full time “unclassified” positions at City Hall, who are “at-will” employees who can be terminated “without cause” and who work at the pleasure of the Mayor or the City Council. “Unclassified employees” or exempt employees do not have the same vested rights classified employees have. They have no appeal rights to the City Personnel Board for disciplinary action so when they are fired, they are in fact terminated with little or no recourse.
City Department Directors are at will employees and paid yearly salaries and are paid whatever the Mayor decides to pay them and what they can negotiate. Their salaries are broken down into hourly rates for payroll purposes. The average pay for Department Directors under Keller has been $116,000 to $125,000 a year depending on experience and background. However, Keller’s top executive staff of Chief Administrative Officer, Chief Operations Officer, Chief Financial Officer, APD Chief of Police and City Attorney are all paid between $150,000 to $200,000 a year. The 27 Department Directors are not paid time and a half when they work in excess of a 40-hour work week.
On September 10, the Albuquerque Journal published on its front page, below the fold, an investigative entitled “City government’s unclassified workforce grows under Keller” and written by staff reporter Jessica Dyer.
According to the Journal column, when Keller was sworn into office on December 1, 2017, the city had a $957 million budget and 5,956 funded full-time positions. The current 2022-2023 year’s budget is $1.4 billion and the Journal reported there are now 6,911 jobs in city government, though upwards of 20% remain unfilled.
The link to the full, unedited Albuquerque Journal report is here:
LIST OF 250 TOP CITY HALL WAGE EARNERS
At the end of each calendar year, City Hall releases the top 250 wage earners. The list of 250 top city hall wages earners is what is paid for the full calendar year of January 1, to December 31 of any given year. The City of Albuquerque updated the list for the year 2021.
According to the list of the top 250 city hall wage earners, they were paid between $119,356.16 to $211,144.75. The City of Albuquerque has 26 separate departments with all 26 department directors who are at will employees who are appointed and serve at the pleasure of the Mayor. 21 of the 26 Departments have assigned to them employees listed in the top 250 wage earners.
The list of 250 top wage earners includes both classified and unclassified positions with 146 listed positions assigned to APD and 48 assigned to the Fire Department for a total of 194 positions out of the 250. The remaining 56 positions earning between $119,356.16 to $211,144.75 are scattered throughout 19 other departments and are at will, unclassified positions appointed by the Mayor. 16 are assigned to City Support, 9 to Municipal Development, 5 to Finance Admin Services, 4 to the Chief Administrative Office, 3 to City Legal, 3 to Cultural Services, 2 to each to Human Resources, Technology and Innovation and Parks and Recreation and 1 each to the Planning Department, Environmental Health, Office of the City Clerk, Family Community Services, Mayor’s Office, Animal Welfare, Senior Affairs, Solid Waste, Aviation and Council Services.
The top upper commands of the APD and Fire Departments and Chief Offices and Deputies are unclassified, appointed by the mayor with a balance of upwards of 40 employees of the 250 top paid positions being “unclassified”, at will positions, with those employees assigned to other departments.
Seven of 10 APD Chief executive command staff are listed in the top 250 city wage earners. All 7 of the positions are considered “at will employees” and serve at the pleasure of Mayor Keller and are not paid overtime. All 7 are reported to have a received a pay increase upwards of 8% beginning January 1, 2022.
Executive salaries and Department Directors individuals and what they were paid in 2021 are as follows:
MAYOR’S SENIOR STAFF
Nair,Sarita, CA-Chief Administrative Office Chief Admin Officer, $196,773.12. (On March 11, CAO Sarita Nair announced her departure from city hall with sources saying that she did not have the sufficient votes to be confirmed by the city council. Niar was eventually replaced by Lawrence Rael.)
Rael,Lawrence, Deputy Chief Administrative Office, Chief Operations Officer, $191,600.30. (On Jun 24, 2022, Lawrence Rael was promoted and is now the Chief Administrative Officer.)
Aguilar Jr, Esteban , City Attorney, $150,724.32 (On May 17, it was announced in a press release that City Attorney Esteban Aguilar, Jr. was leaving his position at the end of May.On June 22, 2022 Lauren Keefe became Albuquerque’s City Attorney, making her the first ever appointed female city attorney.
Bhakta,Sanjay, Finance Admin Svc Chief Financial Officer, $150,224.31.
Sourisseau,Kevin, Chief Administrative Office Associate CAO, $130,261.91
Puelle, Michael, Chief Administrative Office Chief of Staff, $139,445.91 (On September 12, 2022 it was announced that Michael Puelle was named UNM’s chief government relations officer.)
DEPARTMENT DIRECTORS AND DEPUTY DIRECTORS
Following are the names are department directors and deputy directors appointed by Mayor Tim Keller with salaries paid for the full 2021 calendar year:
Osterloh,Brian, Technology and Innovation Director, $144,118.55
DiMenna,Mark, Environmental Health, Deputy Director, $132,786.87
Leech,Mark, Technology and Innovation Deputy Director, $135,419.97
Simon,David, Parks and Recreation Director, $135,204.31
Ortega,Carolyn, Animal Welfare Director, $130,549.91
Martinez,Jennifer Renee, Finance Admin Director, $130,041.12
Pierce,Carol, Family Community Services Director, $130,041.12
Martinez,Jennifer Renee, Finance Admin Svc Director, $130,041.12
Montoya,Charles, Municipal Development Director, $130,041.11
Daniel,Christopher Finance Admin, Chief Investment Officer, $128,545.11
Whelan, Matthew, Solid Waste Director, $124,877.92
Watson,Ethan, City Clerk, $124,877.91
VanEtten de Sanchez,Mary, Cultural Services Director, $124,877.91
Romero,Anthony, Human Resources Director, $122,747.91
Sandoval,Donna, City Controller, $125,989.90
Sanchez,Anna, Senior Affairs Director, $124,877.90
Rogers,Paul, Municipal Development Deputy Director, $123,362.71
Varela,Alan, Municipal Development Deputy Director, $123,180.37
Stowell,Stephanie, Cultural Services, BioPark Administrator, $122,468.86
Flores,David, Parks and Recreation Deputy Director-Parks & Rec, $118,959.95
McCurley,Richard, Aviation Deputy Director Aviation, $118,005.92
Smith,Dean, Cultural Services, Assoc Director Library, $116,776.07
Davis,Lawrence, Finance Admin, City Budget Officer, $116,733.91
Truong,Loc, Human Resources, Deputy Director, $113,739.92
Following are the 7 top APD command staff with pay listed for the full 2021 calendar year:
Medina, Harold, Police Chief Of Police, $177,562.68
Smathers, Michael Jay, 1st Deputy Chief, $149,881.56
Garcia, Eric, 2nd Deputy Chief, $147,444.20
Barker, Cecily, Deputy Chief, $147,201.70
Griego, Jon J , Deputy Chief $144,228.47
Brown, Joshua Deputy Chief, $134,608.38
Lowe, Cori Deputy Chief, $128,409.85
The link to the top 250 wage earners listing names, titles and salaries paid can be found here:
On June 1, Mayor Keller announced the appointments of 3 new executive staff. Those individuals are:
Bob White, Associate Chief Administrative Officer (ACAO) paid $170,000 a year
Katarina Sandoval, Chief Operations Officer (COO) paid $150,000 a year.
Annie Manriquez, Deputy Chief of Staff paid $131,000 per year.
On August 31, 2022 Mayor Keller announced the appointment of retired Republican Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court Judge Victor Valdez to serve as the city’s new Superintendent of Police Reform. Judge Valdez was appointed as an independent contractor who will be working part time, 10 hours a week, paid at the rate of $185 an hour not to exceed a total of $100,000 over a full year
DEFENDINT INCREASE IN UNCLASSFIED POSITIONS
Chief Administrative Officer Lawrence Rael defended the increase in the number of unclassified positions as necessary. Rael noted that many of the new positions are tied to the U.S. Department of Justice mandated reform as well as the creation of the newly created Albuquerque Community Safety Department. Rael attributed the mushrooming communications workforce in part to the broader media landscape “including digital and social platforms that government didn’t use 10 years ago” as well as the administration’s overall strategy.
Rael said the number of new unclassified jobs reflects the size of municipal government operations and he said in a statement:
“The changing needs of a growing city require more out of city government. … [The size of the city operation] requires high-level talent to manage its many departments and work effectively. … Albuquerque has grown, and government leadership needs to grow with it. … We prioritize being responsive and transparent to both the media and the public. … That can’t happen without people in place to carry out those functions.”
DRAMATIC GROWTH OF UNCLASSIFIED WORKFORCE UNDER KELLER
The September 10 Albuquerque Journal reported that out of the 6,911 funded full-time employees, 589 of those full-time positions are “unclassified” employees, who are not covered by the personnel rules and regulations and who can be terminated without cause. They serve at the pleasure of the mayor or at discretion of the city’s chief administrative officer. In otherwords, there are 6,322 full time city employees who are classified and 589 who are unclassified. (6,322 classified + 589 unclassified = 6,911 total full time positions.)
According to the Journal, 266 unclassified positions, or 45%, of the added full-time unclassified jobs are positions added since Mayor Tim Keller took office December 1, 2017. According to information provided by the city Human Resources Department, many of the unclassified potions are classified as “performance and innovation managers, chief impact officer and civic engagement coordinators”. Many other of the unclassified positions are the traditional positions like APD Chief, Fire Chief, City Attorney, City Clerk and the other Department Directors.
According to the Journal analysis, Keller has had a 45% increase in unclassified positions since taking office on December 1, 2017, with the 18% of unclassified workers in jobs created during the 8 years under Keller’s predecessor Richard Berry. Many of the new unclassified employees are in high-ranking administrative positions.
Pay varies across the new unclassified jobs created, with the lowest compensated at the Parks and Recreation as techs, who make about $31,000 annually. However, the Journal September 10 article zeroed in on positions that have been created and filled by Keller paying in excess of $100,000 a year. A total of 55 of the 266 new unclassified positions created by Keller earn at least $100,000 per year. The city created 2 new Associate Chief Administrative Officers, 3 new Associate Directors and 16 new Deputy Directors, though 2 deputies are for the newly created Albuquerque Community Safety Department, with all being paid upwards of $100,000.
Two city councilors questioned the need for some of the unclassified employee growth under Keller with on asserting that it was political to promote Keller’s ambitions.
Democrat Councilor Pat Davis said the police department positions are hard to argue against because APD remains subject to the Federal Court Approved Settlement agreement and the mandated reform. However, Davis did say he has concerns since Keller’s early days in office about the number of “unclassified marketing and communications personnel” in the mayoral administration’s reporting chain, even if their jobs are funded by individual department budgets.
Davis had this to say:
“I think there’s just a general sense that these [unclassified] positions more serve the agenda of the mayor than the day-to-day work of the city and you generally see them in places like marketing and not out in the street engaging directly with [the general public].”
Davis said the city clearly needs more workers in that the city vacancy rate as of this summer was about 20%. There is a shortage of city employees in areas of bus drivers and 911 call operators.
Republican Councilor Dan Lewis, who ran and lost to Keller in 2017 an is said to be running for Mayor again in 2025, called the unclassified employee expansion under Keller “outrageous” and at a scale he did not see under the Republican Mayor Berry administration, Lewis was a city councilor for the full 8 years Berry was in office. At no time did Lewis ever challenge the appointments of Berry. Lewis specifically challenged the necessity of added upper-management and communications personnel and said:
“We don’t need more managers. … We need people to get things done to produce results.”
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
The audit revealed that in the last 7 years, the number of unclassified positions at the city nearly doubled, with 5 years under Mayor Tim Keller. Unclassified city positions exploded from 314 in July 2018 to 620 by June 2022. It’s painfully obvious that the Mayor Tim Keller created unclassified positions in order to pay employees higher salaries, even though their qualifications were similar to existing classified positions. At the same time the overall full-time employee count at the city increased by 14%. The audit also revealed that many unclassified positions received large salaries that were not justified by the actual job duties and experience.
More than 50% of the unclassified positions the audit examined had no job description. One of the most damning findings of the audit is how the city’s Human Resources Deparment cannot perform one of its basic functions which is job performance. The audit found “the city is unable to evaluate the performance of many employees in unclassified positions or set performance goals — which employees should strive to achieve — because a job description detailing the position’s essential duties and requirements was never created.”
A sample of 74 employees in unclassified positions found the annual salaries for those employees added up to $4.3 million in funding. The audit found that only 16 of those employees had applications or a resume on file with the city Human Resources Department, and only 10 had evidence to prove they met the qualifications for the job.
The audit reveals that over the last 8 years “a number of senior management and deputy director employees received large salary increases, though their job duties for these positions did not change and the increases were not based on their job performance.” For 37 employees identified, their salaries increased by a total of more than $1 million over eight years and weren’t subject to the city’s 5% pay increase cap” imposed on all other city employees.
The city department with the largest number of unclassified employees is the Albuquerque Police Department. In the fiscal year 2022 and in order to comply with the U.S. Department of Justice requirements, the police department added numerous unclassified employees. Ostensibly, the Human Resources Department was circumvented or ignored when the positions were ordered created and no job description and no minimum qualifications were developed.
The lion’s share of the city’s unclassified jobs are in the Albuquerque Police Department. In fiscal 2022 , APD had 209 unclassified workers compared to 84 in 2015. The Keller Administration proclaims the dramatic increase of at-will employees at APD is a necessary consequence of the city’s Court Approved Settlement Agreement (CASA) with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The blunt truth is that these are the very jobs that need to be clearly defined to ensure compliance with DOJ and not having job descriptions is negligent.
The audit makes it clear that the pervasive problem is the ease of hiring unclassified employees. Under the personnel rules and regulations, unclassified new hires are far easier to approve than classified hires because of the lack of mandated credentials. The city’s highest management positions of Department Directors and the Mayor’s executive staff positions are the best examples of pure cronyism in conflict with hiring people who are the most qualified.
The Keller Administration’s Human Resources Department, no doubt with the blessing of Keller said that such a mandate was “putting up more barriers to hiring and employment doesn’t give us the flexibility we need.” In other words, the Mayor Keller Administration wants to hire whoever they want at whatever salary they want and be damned qualifications.
It is an essential and basic function of any human resources department, whether in the private sector or in government, to hire the best qualified for any job and provide job descriptions and develop minimum qualifications for hiring competent staff who know what’s expected of them. Job descriptions set out minimum performance measures and standards to ensure applicants are educated and experienced to do the work.
However, the audit reflects out control abuses of standard city personnel rules and regulations creating a system of cronyism. The out-of-control abuses allows the Mayor Keller Administration to hire whoever they want at whatever salary they want and be damned qualifications.