Unlike gov’t, business not an easy target

Filed under: Hazlehurst |

More than 20 years ago, Mayor Bob Isaac persuaded City Council to back a then-novel compensation plan for city employees called “comparable worth.”
Responding to complaints from female clerical/administrative employees that their salaries were far lower than those of employees in traditionally male jobs, like truck drivers, Isaac backed sweeping change.
Rather than tying compensation to prevailing wage and salary levels in the local labor market, the city devised a system of rating positions according to the benefit received by the city.
This meant that, for example, an administrative assistant, whose job demanded a certain array of skills and education level, would be rated as more valuable to the city than an individual whose job required less education and fewer skills.
In explaining his support for the change, Isaac remarked tartly “We’re not a like a private business — we don’t discriminate in the dark.”
Sounded good, but it was just political hyperbole.
Then, as now, private employers couldn’t discriminate on the basis of sex. Then, as now, private employers were free to negotiate compensation with potential employees. Then, as now, public entities have to deal with a degree of openness that would drive any private employer nuts.
When I wrote for another local weekly newspaper, and deadline was fast approaching, and I couldn’t figure out what to write about, one subject always worked: bash Republicans.
And if you’re writing for almost any daily newspaper in the country, and you can’t figure out what to write about, one subject always works: bash city government.
Yup, you can always find some waste, fraud and corruption down at City Hall, not to mention incompetence, malingering and nepotism, and let’s not forget sweetheart deals and dubious contracts.
And it’s easy reporting — for the most part, all you have to do is answer the phone. There’s always someone with a grudge, or someone who feels aggrieved or someone who’s genuinely appalled by the goings-on in his or her department — and they make the call.
Hang around City Hall, get a reputation as someone who will protect his sources, and you’ll dig up plenty of dirt — or, rather, the dirt will be pre-dug without any effort on your part.
But what about the private sector? Surely, there must be chicanery going on — why do we read so much less about it?
Sure, we hear all about the spectacular fall of the Enrons and Worldcoms, but that’s just disaster reporting. Press investigations usually have little to do with unveiling corporate scandals — companies such as Enron just unravel by themselves after years of shady accounting, cover-ups and sprinkling fairy dust on the credulous financial press.
So why don’t we peerless investigative reporters get to work, and uncover bad stuff?
Three reasons. First, there’s no “Freedom of Information Act” covering private business. We can’t just march in the door, throw down a FOIA request and walk out with copies of confidential documents.
Secondly, employees with access to damning information usually don’t hurry to the nearest reporter and spill their guts. Public employees know that their jobs are safe and that the city won’t go under because of their revelations — but private employees are in a different environment.
If your boss is a drunk and a gambler who finances his weekends in Vegas by dipping into the company till, what do you do? If he’s otherwise competent (maybe he increased sales by 50 percent last year), you give him a quiet heads-up and tell him to mend his ways, or talk to colleagues or go to higher-ups.
The last thing you do is go to the press.
Do that, and the company will suffer. Sales may plummet, orders may get cancelled, jobs may be lost — and one of them may be yours. You have a vested interest in keeping your company afloat and growing, so you try to deal with your problems in-house.
Finally, investigating companies isn’t easy — it’s boring, green-eyeshade stuff. You have to pore over reams of Securities and Exchange Commission filings, talk to analysts, read virtually every publicly available document — and then try to get someone to talk to you.
And suppose, after all that, you find something. Chances are that it’ll be so arcane that no one outside a certain specialized niche of the financial community will either understand or care about your breathtaking revelation.
After months of slogging, you find that Amalgamated Widget used an arcane, and almost certainly illegal, hedging tactic to avoid taxes in the Czech Republic, and then improperly reported these gains as ordinary income in Q3 of 2005. My eyes glaze over … and my editor says “For this we sent you to the Czech Republic??!!”
So, next time you read a breathless account of mis-or-malfeasance in local government, take it with a small grain of salt. What you may be seeing, rather than the laziness and incompetence of government, is the natural inclination of journalists to take their shots at the easiest targets available.
Meanwhile, as an inveterate downtown party boy (or party geezer, to be precise) I was surprised to read Denverite Dave Blomberg’s account of his recent night at the Ritz in the Rocky Mountain News.
According to Blomberg (who, if his picture’s any guide, is a burly, goateed 20-something with a shaved head and a menacing stare), the Ritz after 10 p.m. on a Friday is only slightly less dangerous than downtown Baghdad.
“Men outnumbered women by about 5-1 … girls sporting micro-minis and tubetops dancing alternately with airmen and mustachioed guys wearing baggy weight-lifter pants who would be squaring off by the end of the night,” Blomberg wrote. “The store next door had glass knocked out of it and blood pooled all over the sidewalk. At 2 a.m. on a Saturday, Tejon Street in Colorado Springs is a tinderbox … get out.”
That’s fine, but we’re in Rashomon territory here. I’ve hung out at the Ritz until closing on far too many nights, and Blomberg’s experience is very far from mine.
On Halloween night, for example, eight of us met at the Ritz and stayed until the wee hours — dancing, drinking, talking, flirting and hanging out. The crowd was predominantly young, but friendly and reasonably mellow — our mixed age, mixed sex and mixed race group had a nice relaxed time.
And at closing, walking north on Tejon Street, there was an inexplicable absence of pools of blood and broken glass — but maybe I just need better glasses.
Still, it makes me feel pretty macho to realize that what seems like a tame little downtown to geezer me is totally hardcore to a manly Denver youth.
As Rodney Dangerfield might have said: “At last — Respect!”
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.