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Stop the dysfunction; Scandals highlight need to fix problems in city's Human Resources Department

To say that there's something amiss in the City of Buffalo Human Resources Department is to severely understate the problem.

The situation demands a full-scale, top-to-bottom examination with the goal of placing in charge someone who has the qualifications and expertise to run the department. Failure to do so, and in a timely manner, would be one more failure at City Hall.

The latest example: Two workers have been suspended without pay following separate investigations by the city Law Department and the Comptroller's Office.

This case involves a benefits office employee who also was working for a city vendor, including shepherding some of the firm's invoices through the City Hall bureaucracy. That employee has been suspended, along with her former supervisor, who is facing four charges, pending disciplinary hearings.

Earlier this year, Human Resources Commissioner Karla L. Thomas was fired in the wake of disclosures that the city had been paying health insurance premiums for dead city retirees. And after that, Compensation and Benefits Director Antoinette Palmer was suspended without pay when a city audit found that Palmer's office had failed to try to block unemployment benefits for Thomas after she was fired. Palmer is on suspension pending an internal review.

There's clearly a management problem in the department, and it goes beyond the latest controversies.

Those running the department simply are not equipped to deal with major issues, which include negotiating contracts. The city has to pay outside lawyers to do that work, but the expertise should be in-house. The department also falls short in its efforts to track who is getting health care benefits. It's inexcusable that between Human Resources, the city's information technology department and the IT departments of its health care providers that the city does not have an accurate database of who is eligible to receive benefits.

This issue needs to be resolved, whether it means tapping into New York State pension files or the Social Security index.

The lack of initiative, planning and vision in a key city department is troubling. Instead of leadership, there has been a series of revelations of mismanagement. In the Thomas case, the city paid an exorbitant amount to outside attorneys to present the arguments for firing her. But after finally winning the case, the city allowed her to collect thousands of dollars in unemployment benefits she wasn't entitled to.

At her firing hearing, Thomas claimed that she had inherited a dysfunctional system. She was right about that, and little has changed since then. The right people need to be put into the right positions to stop the drain on taxpayers.

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