All in the Family

By Al Kamen

Most large agency meetings tend to be brutally dull dog-and-pony shows. The bosses drone on about how wonderful things are  --  but how reorganization could vastly improve operations  --  and about how much they truly appreciate the efforts of the staff, which they invariably hail as "dedicated," even though half of them are by now dozing.

But not so the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's annual employees' meeting a couple of weeks ago in a ballroom at the ritzy Mayflower Hotel on nearby Connecticut Avenue NW.

The theme of this year's meeting  --  improving customer service  --  didn't  augur well for an exciting show, but then Commissioner   Stuart J. Ishimaru got up to say a few words.

Ishimaru, the lone Democrat on the five-member commission  --  there's one vacancy  --  ripped into some of the agency's recent initiatives, including the idea of the morning's annual meeting itself, which, even with just coffee, bagels and some sort of "baked good," was budgeted at $30,000, a hefty sum for the cash-strapped agency.

He also criticized outsourcing the public's phone inquiries to Lawrence, Kan., reorganization proposals that focused on the field offices but not on headquarters and so on. People in the 500-person audience cheered and clapped,
we were told.

Chairwoman   Cari M. Dominguez, said to have been tight-jawed and visibly upset during Ishimaru's remarks, rose to say she felt obliged to respond. Noting Ishimaru's criticism of the costs of the meeting, Dominguez said, according to
sources, "we spend about $500,000 a year on his office staff," but she had yet to see a work product from them.

This criticism of those career staff drew hisses from the audience, we're told by our sources.

We tried to confirm the precise exchange between the commissioners. Since the session was sent live to the 51 EEOC field offices (some got audio only, some video only, some nothing, but hey, it was the first time they'd tried the technology), we called   Leonora L. Guarraia, the agency's chief operating officer, to see if we could have a transcript or a video.

"I don't think so," she said. Asked why not, she said because it was a "private meeting." But there were 500 people there; how could that be private?

Agency spokesman   Charles Robbins suggested we not get hung up on the word "private." It was not a regular EEOC business meeting, therefore open, Robbins said, but rather something in "the EEOC family."

That's an awfully big family, with 500 in Washington and maybe a couple of thousand more in the field offices.

Guarraia also disputed the $30,000 cost for the gathering. "It was considerably less," she said.

Well, how much less? She declined to say.

Must have been a private number?