Special Reports

Staff had trouble with computer boss, report says

Tacoma computer system director David Otto was at odds with staff and accused of unproductive, unpredictable and potentially violent behavior before his resignation last month, records show.

Betsy BeMiller, a workplace dispute resolution expert called in to consult on the case, described concerns about Otto’s “patterns of unproductive behaviors, deficiencies in management personality” and lack of organizational leadership in a June report to city officials.

Otto, whose department was responsible for maintaining the city’s multimillion-dollar computer system, announced Aug. 1 he was resigning his $135,533-a-year post to take another job. City Manager Eric Anderson said Otto’s resignation was voluntary, and utilities Director Mark Crisson praised his work.

On Friday, Otto said he’s scheduled to begin his new position with a technology company on Wednesday, but declined to name the company.

He acknowledges his last months as director of the city’s Business Information Systems Department were marked by complaints about his leadership and close work with BeMiller to improve his job performance.

“The staff had their concerns and they were unhappy and there were some things I was unhappy with,” Otto said. “I think it would be disingenuous if I said it didn’t play into my decision.”

He also said he was weary of an intense, nearly impossible job made more difficult by high expectations, money concerns and scrutiny from The News Tribune.

Otto told BeMiller that the city didn’t provide a realistic picture that $50 million was an “initial investment” and that it would cost significantly more to fully implement the city’s SAP computer system.

“He feels that the city and TPU have not been honest or realistic about what was purchased, and what is required to implement the purchase effectively,” BeMiller wrote. “He feels he should not be responsible for this dishonesty and unrealism.”

The News Tribune obtained her June 15 report through a public records request.

The report and other records show Otto’s job performance was under fire and he was subject to an improvement plan.

He was the focus of BeMiller’s work to address deep concerns about his ability to lead the staff responsible for maintaining the 2-year-old computer system. The system cost more than $50 million to install. Operating and associated costs will bring the city’s investment to more than $74 million by the end of this year.

BeMiller’s June 15 report, written after interviews with Otto and members of his staff, described a manager who spent his time on “firefighting” and “image protection” rather than solving problems and cultivating positive working relationships with employees. If something didn’t change, the city was likely to lose key workers, experience departmental infighting and suffer increased costs, she said.

Some of his workers worried in e-mails written in June that Otto was a temperamental and ineffective manager.

“One of my staff have expressed to me that they are concerned a co-worker … will burst into a meeting of others and shoot us down,” a department manager wrote to city risk manager Debbie Dahlstrom on June 17. A series of other e-mails made it clear the message was about Otto and that at least one other worker expressed concerns about Otto “becoming volatile.”

But the situation was quickly defused, according to BeMiller.

“Any staff concerns or fears about David Otto’s behavior were explored,” she said Friday. “With involvement from the city’s Human Resources department, city manager and TPU executive, I assisted in assessing and resolving all expressed concerns.”

If employee safety concerns had not been resolved or if BeMiller had considered Otto to be dangerous, she could have recommended that he be placed on administrative leave.

Otto called the e-mail allegations “totally unfounded” and “ridiculous” and said some of them came from a disgruntled employee. He told BeMiller he didn’t believe his staff gave him adequate support and said they needed to respect his decision-making authority. He added that he’d been “charged with extraordinary demands following the unfinished SAP implementation” and felt caught in the middle between the expectations of a number of players.

Her study reflects the tense atmosphere in which Otto and his crew were charged with delivering services to thousands of employees using a vastly different computer system that changed the way the city does business.

Although BeMiller proposed development plans to help Otto do his job better, her candid assessment was that “even with close oversight and coaching” it wouldn’t “bring the necessary, urgent, positive change in leadership” needed.

Nevertheless, city officials directed her to work with Otto.

Her “Immediate Improvement Plan for BIS Director,” dated July 5, said he needed to “cease or diminish” such behaviors as “manifesting anger; raising voice; pencil tossing; sitting back and folding arms and shutting out/down.”

She also recommended he work on active listening skills, conferring with staff and collaboration and that he review strategic decision making with Crisson, his direct supervisor.

Although Otto quit before the improvement plan reached its conclusion, acting computer department director Linda Carlton said she was “satisfied” with its course and believed the city acted properly.

Crisson didn’t know how often dispute resolution takes place but he said, “Fortunately, it isn’t the rule. I think it’s important to hold our managers accountable and make sure they’re living up to expectations,” he said.

Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659