Advice to Armstrong: Don’t Make Vehrs a Cause Celebre

First question: Is a state employee allowed to hold personal opinions contrary to the official position of the department he works for? The answer is easy. Of course, everyone is entitled to a personal opinion. The state does not engage in thought control.

The next question is a little trickier: Is a state employee entitled to publicly express his opinions if it’s clear that he’s speaking in a private capacity, not his capacity as a state employee?

That second question goes to the crux of the mini-firestorm swirling around Will Vehrs in the photo captions he submitted to Commonwealth Conservative last week, in which he made light of the Martinsville region’s economic decline. The story, first filed by the Martinsville Bulletin — picked up by Conaway Haskins here — was published this morning as the lead Metro & Virginia story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Even though Vehrs has apologized profusely, local politicians and economic developers have called upon the Governor to fire him.

Said Del. Ward Armstrong, D-Henry: “I understand his apology, but he’s in a position where he’s going to be working with economic development. How can he work with a potential prospect after having in a public fashion demeaned the area? … It’s not a criminal offense, but it does destroy his effectiveness in economic development.”

Three observations:

  1. Del. Armstrong needs to get his facts straight. Vehrs works with the Department of Business Assistance, not in “economic development.” He mans a hot-line dispensing information to small businesses. He does not interact with business prospects that Martinsville and Henry County might attempt to lure to their region. His job assisting small businesses, even those from Martinsville and Henry County, is in no way compromised.
  2. More to the point, Vehrs was not speaking in an official capacity, either for the Virginia Economic Development Partnership or the Department of Business Assistance. He was clearly blogging in his capacity as a private citizen. Has Vehrs violated any state policy? Has he violated any departmental protocols? What grounds would the Governor have for firing him? Does the Governor really want to set a precedent of quashing a state employee’s right to free speech in the blogosphere?
  3. Armstrong’s strong-arming of Vehrs is likely to backfire. Everyone can sympathise with the economic plight of Martinsville and Henry County. But few will sympathise with Armstrong’s seemingly vengeful lashing out against a mid-level state employee for words that, objectively speaking, caused no harm. This is not the kind of visibility that Martinsville-Henry County wants to generate for itself. The last thing the region needs is for the blogosphere to mobilize in Vehrs’ defense. No one would benefit from the story going national.

Best solution: Let it go. Vehrs is obviously remorseful. He’s learned his lesson. Let the story die, and get back to economic development.

Update: The Kaine administration has suspended Vehrs from his job for 10 days. Will blogs about it on Commonwealth Conservative.

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15 responses to “Advice to Armstrong: Don’t Make Vehrs a Cause Celebre”

  1. Chris Avatar

    If Kaine can fire Vehrs, then Bush could fire half the CIA.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    Again, it’s not what he said but when he said it.

    Like a majority of his blogging it was done on State Time, i.e., my time and your time because we pay his salary.

  3. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Anonymous 5:10, Have you ever made a personal phone call during work hours? Have you ever run a personal errand? Have you ever let your lunch break run longer than the allotted time? Have you ever surfed the Internet? Have you ever worked a crossword puzzle? Have you ever talked about your personal life with a co-worker?

    The fact is, almost no one works 8 hours a day with their nose to the grindstone every single minute. The only difference between most people and Will Vehrs is that his blog posts momentary diversions are marked with time stamps.

    Will is a dedicated and productive state employee. If he chooses to spend his free time between answering phone calls by reading blogs and posting to them, how is that any different from someone who steps outside for a smoke break or chats on the phone a half hour with a girl friend?

    The issue is productivity.
    In the Knowledge Economy, organizations are moving away from measuring employees by factory-like inputs — hours/minutes spent in front of the weaving loom (or sitting at the desk with a phone glued to the ear) and towards measuring them by output, how much work they actually get done.

    Has anyone who supports disciplining Will offered any evidence that he has failed to answer or return phone calls in a timely manner?

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    There is more to the issue than productivity – much more. I have no doubt that Will is a dedicated and productive state employee – when he’s not blogging.

    I hate to say it, but if Will were blogging about anything other than politics, which is what he does most of the time, this would be a non-issue. The sad part is that the entire incident has become politicized.

    However, Will chose to enter the political arena on state time in front of a state computer. That’s clearly a conflict of interest like it or not. What if every state employee chose to blog at work the way Will does? To allow it to continue sets a very bad precedent for every state employee.

    What’s next? Are we supposed to allot 20 minutes every day for state employees to blog? If, so are we supposed to allow them to do it on state computers? Where does it stop?

    -Anon. 5:10

  5. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Anon 5:10. You raise legitimate issues. The state cannot tolerate a situation in which the blogging of state employees interferes with their jobs. But the question is whether Will is being punished for activities that were defined as transgressions only after the fact.

  6. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Jim Bacon: You’ve nailed it. The issue is if normal, personal, human behavior has been excessive. If so, the supervisors have a legitimate management issue. If not, it is politics at its cheapest, if not worst.

  7. Anonymous Avatar

    Big Jim:

    First, a state employee working in the Commerce secretariat whose job is assisting small businesses IS a person working in economic development.

    Second, Vehrs at times has indeed identified himself in his blogs (many times) as one who assists small businesses and mans a hotline for such — so how could one easily say that he is not speaking in his official capacity. (Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think he was or ever had — but it’s not as cut-and-dried as you’d have us believe here.) But it’s no secret that he works for DBA.

    Last, so many seem to refuse to see the main point here: Vehrs posts for hours and hours and hours every week — while at work! This is so much more than making the occasional personal phone call. Check it out: hours and hours he does this! And on a state computer, no less!

    As a taxpayer, I’m pretty irritated about it. It’s flat-out abuse of state resources.

    How can anybody defend this? As much as we make like Vehrs, his blogging for hours and hours every week on state time is absolutely indefensible.

  8. Will Vehrs Avatar
    Will Vehrs

    Were I not still reeling a bit from news of my suspension, I would be more lucid and I would take the opportunity to fully address the comments that are here. I must say that the critics on this site, commenting here and previously on Conaway’s post, have made me look deeply into my actions and motivations, and they have caused me to see a blind spot that I have been utilizing as a rationale for my blogging.

    I will discuss that blind spot here in a later comment or in some other venue because I think it is important. I will just summarize by saying those who argue that I should not blog on state time are right. I was wrong and I have been wrong for a long time. Unfortunately, my blogging was tacitly tolerated until I crossed the line. It was tolerated because I was the most productive employee and because my management was afraid to take a stand. If my blogging was wrong, then a whole lot of other activities that are tacitly tolerated were wrong, too. What’s more pernicious–me blogging in plain sight or a colleague chatting partisan politics at a Chamber meeting he’s attending on the state dime?

    I have challenged anyone who doubts me to FOIA DBA records. Folks are so used to bureaucratic sloth that they cannot imagine someone literally running to pick up the phone rather than let it go to the answering machine.

    Those of you who think because you see time stamps think I was “blogging for hours” are mistaken. If you want to say that my job doesn’t keep me busy enough, that’s fine because the only reason I wasn’t too busy to post mindless caption entries on that fateful day was because some other guy needed numbers and knew that Fridays were slow on the phone, leaving me to stare at the computer screen waiting for emails and chats to come through. I should have shopped online at Amazon instead. That’s what the wily bureaucrats do, while they keep their calendar open so anyone walking by thinks they’re “scheduling.”

    I know that policy doesn’t allow one guy to do something because he can without impacting his job. Lots of jobs aren’t like that.

    One thing I will never concede, however, is that I have ever let blogging or any other personal internet activity interfere with my fanatical devotion to making the Virginia Business Information a model for government customer service. Look at the reports, look at our compliment file, interview my co-workers, talk to clients. Show me anything but somebody whose highest calling was helping the little guy that nobody else cares about.

  9. Anonymous Avatar

    As a taxpayer I accept Will’s apology and wish him well.

    But I find it at once hilarious and pathetic that some folks are blaming the Governor and Del. Armstrong for his suspension.

    Will, at least, has the class to do neither.

  10. Waldo Jaquith Avatar
    Waldo Jaquith

    Great summation of the situation, Jim — I enjoyed reading it.

  11. Robert Avatar

    Actually, I wish that EVERY state employee blogged. What an excellent way for the public to see (and hold accountable) the workings of our state government. I, personally, think it’s ridiculous to require state employees to spend their time in a particular way (i.e. sitting at a desk doing nothing). We pay them to get their jobs done. If they’re getting that work done, let them do whatever they want in between calls!

    This idea that the state should control every minute of an employee’s time is very totalitarian. I would find it ridiculous except that it’s too scary for that.

  12. Anonymous Avatar

    1 I have no patience with a state employee using state equipment on stae time to”blog.” Some time for personal affairs is fine but we’re talking about a reported 34 posts in several hours.

    2 That being said, a 10 day suspension seems excessive. A letter in his file and strong admonition would have been just fine.

    3 I can usnderstand the objection of some in the Martinsville-Henry area to having Mr. Vehrs come there as part of his “punishment.” Seems obvious doesn’t it?

    4 Armstrong has been “rehired” by the people in his district a number of times since his Clinton impersonation and “insult” to Ms. Devolites-Davis….I guess the “Bloggers” are just going to have to live with it.

    5 Isn’t it abut time everyone got over this?

  13. SBViking Avatar

    Anon, regarding point 1. Your position is actually rather troubling to me.

    If the issue here was an employee misusing his time, then that’s between his supervisor and him. It’s very peculiar to see a state delegate chime in on an internal issue.

    In fact, it’s rather troubling that Mr. Vehrs is suddenly less a citizen because the Commonwealth of virginia is the source of his paycheck. And how does the # of posts/hour matter? Can you give me an appropriate threshold for a state employee? 6/hour? 3? 10? I might be able to rattle of 34 posts in the time you call ‘some time for personal affairs”

  14. DonSurber Avatar

    Excuse me, Virginia has so many state employees that they can take hours of breaks each day reading blogs and posting on them?

    Maybe that is why Martinsville-Henry County is in such dire straits economically: Taxpayers must finance this bloated, self-important, goldbricking bureaucracy.

  15. MikeT Avatar

    I’m sorry, but I don’t see what the big deal is here. He should be lucky that he got off so lightly. Here’s my post on it since you don’t have a trackback.

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