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story.lead_photo.caption City Attorney Tom Carpenter is shown in this file photo. - Photo by Staton Breidenthal

Complaints about delays in getting a response from the Little Rock city attorney's office became so frequent that the Little Rock Board of Directors ordered a $15,000 efficiency analysis of the office.

The city contracted with Chicago-based SeyfarthLean Consulting and paid a little more than $1,500 in travel expenses in addition to the $15,000 engagement fee to have a consultant conduct an on-site review of City Attorney Tom Carpenter's office last month.

The firm issued its final report this week.

Among other findings, the study found the department isn't tracking all of its work in a management system; staff members don't have the equipment to work remotely, which results in people working evenings and weekends in the office; and a policy mandating that Carpenter sign off on all work, no matter how routine, before it leaves the office creates low morale and slows response times.

Carpenter was out of the office sick Friday and hadn't yet seen the report, he said.

City directors and staff members often complain that it takes too long for their requests to be completed by the city attorney's office. Carpenter is a direct employee of the Board of Directors.

The city directors were supposed to receive a copy of the report Friday, but they said they hadn't seen it by late Friday afternoon, so it was unclear what action they may take in response to it.

Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola said Friday that he was traveling and wanted to take more time to digest the report and follow up with the Board of Directors and Carpenter.

Concerns about the organization of Carpenter's office came up during his employee review last year. The review is conducted by the board in executive session, but the mayor announced afterward that the board had asked Carpenter to complete some tasks.

Carpenter told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette at the time that the requests included following up on questions about equipment in the office and a report on litigation options.

The board decided during that review to commission an outside audit of the city attorney's office.

The report from SeyfarthLean Consulting says general concerns about the responsiveness of the attorney's office include delays in completing requests and uncertainty about the status of requests.

The firm spent one day, March 21, on site for the review. A consultant interviewed 19 members of the city attorney's office.

"We had little to no actual data to analyze as part of this project; in fact, that is a focus of some of our recommendation. Instead, this report is based almost exclusively on interviews conducted before and during our on-site session," the report says in a section titled "Limitations of Report."

It noted that employees in the city attorney's office seem to be competent, and there is a strong "team culture" in the office.

"The chief complaint is not about the quality or substance of the work performed, but rather about the responsiveness of the department," it said.

The consultant determined that a key factor of the lagging response time is the incompleteness of requests from city departments.

Attorneys often have to follow up with requesters for more information, the consultant said. The report estimated that 85 to 90 percent of incoming "transactional" requests -- those not related to litigation -- are incomplete. The report didn't say how the consulting firm determined that statistic.

Carpenter's office receives work requests from all 14 city departments and the Board of Directors, as well as requests for records and information from the news media, residents and outside attorneys.

Carpenter is aware of the complaints about response time. In emails between Carpenter and city directors, which are obtained routinely by the Democrat-Gazette, the elected officials have regularly complained about requests not being fulfilled and asked for status updates.

At last Tuesday's city board meeting, Carpenter joked about the time it takes him to complete tasks during a conversation about how soon a city director should ask that he have an assignment completed.

She initially asked for it to be finished within two weeks. Carpenter requested four weeks. Then, after more discussion, the city director changed her request to whenever Carpenter could get it ready. Later, another city director sought clarification on the timeline.

Carpenter said, "The actual words were 'In Tom's good time,' and [City Manager] Bruce [Moore] just laughed because that could mean until hell freezes over. I just took it as 'Don't let this gather dust.'"

The consultant's report said the city attorney's office needs to make changes to take control of its image, because others are creating the characterization now.

It pointed out a Finance Department requirement for reports, which the consultant determined did not benefit the city attorney's office and slowed it down. The consultant recommended the office stop the requested reporting and create its own reporting schedule to follow.

The consultant also said a policy that requires Carpenter to approve everything before it leaves the office creates a bottleneck and slows down response time. Low-risk, routine work should be able to leave the office without his review, the report said.

The firm also said attorneys spend a substantial amount of time proofreading the city's requests for proposals for services or products before the city advertises for bids. This review should stop, the firm recommended.

Chief Deputy Attorney Bill Mann oversees the office's work assignment system. Most litigation work goes through the system, and Mann sends out work assignment memos. Many requests -- especially those from city directors and requests made under the state's Freedom of Information Act -- go directly to Carpenter and are never entered into the system.

"This makes it difficult to get an accurate picture of all the work being performed and for whom," the report said.

The practice could lead to understaffing and an unequal distribution of work, and it doesn't allow office staff to discern patterns such as seasonal or situational fluctuations of workload, the report said.

The firm recommended putting all work requests into a single database so performance could be tracked. It also recommended that the office not start counting the time it takes to deliver a request until it receives a complete request.

Another recommendation was to buy iPads for employees, because many noted having to borrow the iPads of code enforcement officers to look up relevant statutes when working in environmental court.

Key team members should have access to their work materials outside the office, the consultant said, because many complained they had to work evenings and weekends to complete assignments.

To get around this, some employees emailed work to their personal email accounts so they could complete it from home. The consultants cautioned against using personal accounts for official work.

Also, the volume of records requests under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act has been increasing, so the consultant recommended the attorney's office designate a "FOIA czar," or a person to funnel all Freedom of Information requests and responses through.

The attorney's office also should purchase case-management and document-management systems, the report said.

The firm also recommended areas of further study, for which it would charge an additional fee beyond the $15,000 paid for this review.

Metro on 04/21/2018

Print Headline: Report details hang-ups in LR's attorney's office

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