Million Dollar Baby - Part 3

Dr. Jim Gardner
Dr. Jim Gardner

We’ve been looking at the flaws in the City’s report on whether or not to establish a traffic committee. So far we’ve identified the following –

·  Failure to get any information of the benefits of having a traffic committee. Do they save lives? reduce accidents? reduce travel time? Etc. This is the main thing we want to know but the City’s report completely ignores this.

·  Failure to provide cost data. The City did a survey and found out that commissions require a median of 30 hours a month and committees require 12.5 hours a month, but they completely ignored the level of the staff members who provided the time. With salaries ranging from $20 to $200 an hour, it makes a big difference whether or not a committee requires 12 hours of a Director’s time or 12 hours of a clerk’s time.

·  Failure to look at the impact of committee membership. If being a member of a committee helps get people interested in government and they move on to commissions and councils, then this is a critical piece of information. But staff never inquired.

·  Failure to adequately analyze the data. I took the city and time data, then added population, physical size, and density and came up with some remarkable findings. The staff never took that extra step.

Today we’ll look at 3 more flaws in the study.



At some point in the report, the City claims “The City routinely receives requests for service and inquiries…The City addresses these issues quickly…provide a response consistent with the City’s level of quality customer service”. This is part of the self-promotion that is common in staff reports, and in this case, I know for a fact that it isn’t true. For nearly 6 months, the people who live in my HOA have been trying to get the City to respond to their concerns about the parking conditions on city streets that are adjacent to an apartment complex where the owner raised the rent for using parking spots, thus causing the overflow onto city streets. The problem has yet to be solved. The home owners are requesting a permit system, but the city has been reluctant to respond. This is not an isolated event. Residents around Jasper Hill complained for 5 years before the City finally acted to solve their problem. If this is the type of “quality customer service” the City is talking about, we probably need to come up with a better definition of quality.


Most of us think that the best way to describe the average characteristic for a group is to use the mean. In fact this is true, almost all of the time, which is why people usually talk about the mean size or the average size. The city adopts that approach in looking at the staff hours when they report that the average time to support a commission is 33.5 hours and the average time to support a committee is 11.25 hours.

But when you are dealing with data that have outliers (points that are far outside the normal range of scores), the mean or average can distort the picture. In cases like this, you normally adopt the median to describe the data, because the formula to calculate the median takes into account the outliers and gives you a more representative picture.

In the case of the traffic committees, the city’s means of 33.5 and 11.25 are different from the medians of 30 and 12.5. In the case of commissions, the median corrects for the extremely high score of 90 for the City of Orange, and in the case of committees, it corrects for the extremely low score of 5 for Brea.

This is a minor flaw, but nonetheless worthy of note. In our case, the median is 10% less than the mean for commissions, and 11% higher for the committees. A difference of 10% can be meaningful.


The only data the City looked at was staff time. There is a lot more to funding a committee than just staff time. There is the costs of paper, meeting time, etc. A full report should include this information too, but given all the major flaws, one can hardly dwell on this issue.

In his defense, City Manager Dunek claimed that the report was merely a "framework" and in the context of a "framework", the omission of extra data suggested above can be excused. He's probably right about this particular flaw, although a "framework" doesn't excuse bad math or false information or some of the other flaws discussed previously.

Tomorrow we'll summarize.

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Homer December 29, 2013 at 01:48 PM
I, personally, would not be too quick to dismiss minor flaws. A framework should be the foundation of a report. Should the framework prove to be flawed, then the report may not be accurate. Data may be incomplete; however, the data should not be incorrect. Something is amiss within the administration of this city. The problems hint to deeper issues which no member of the council wishes to correct.
Jim Gardner December 29, 2013 at 03:18 PM
Homer, of course you're right. I suppose I am so accustomed to Councilwoman McCullough making apologies for the staff and Councilman Voigts' blank stares when I talk about KPIs and research protocols that I am anticipating their defensive stance. Your point that a flawed framework cannot be properly built upon is an excellent one. The even sadder fact is that after I wrote this I subsequently learned that the data is even more flawed in that activities in 2 of the 34 cities were not properly accounted for. I suppose you could blame this on the cities and not our staff who replied on the reports from those cities. OTOH, if I could learn these things with my limited resources and I wasn't doing a report, one has to wonder why the City didn't find this out. Your final point is the critical one - how many bad reports from the staff does the Council have to see before they do something.


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