Tense Times At Law Dept. Outsider Probes Issues In Rights Unit

Posted: October 20, 1998

Tensions among some high-ranking lawyers at the city Law Department reached a boiling point in recent months, prompting an outside review by former City Solicitor Judith Harris of management issues within the department's civil rights unit.

Harris' review also included questions about potential bias within the Law Department, after an allegation of anti-Semitism was raised.

City Solicitor Stephanie Franklin-Suber declined to discuss the bias issue in detail, saying only that there was ``one allegation of discrimination'' that was unfounded.

Harris said her review turned up no racial, ethnic or religious bias.

``I found no indication of anti-Semitism, and I asked that question specifically,'' she said in an interview.

The management review focused primarily on the Law Department's civil rights unit, headed by 13-year Law Department veteran Carlton Johnson.

Franklin-Suber engaged Harris because she said was aware of some complaints among lawyers in the unit, which handles high-stakes litigation involving civil rights claims against the city.

Some of the management complaints were contained in a memo written by Litigation Chairwoman Francine Friedman Griesing, hired in February 1997 as one of the top officials in the department.

Several sources told the Daily News that intense conflicts arose between Johnson and Griesing, and that Griesing has been unhappy in her management role. Neither returned calls to the Daily News.

Although Harris read Griesing's memo about management issues within the civil rights unit, she did not speak to Griesing in her review.

``I tried to speak to her on a couple of occasions,'' Harris said. ``I called her and left messages and we traded phone calls and were never able to talk.''

Harris' review of the civl rights unit showed Johnson has an intense, hands-on management style, which bothers some, but not all, lawyers within his unit.

``Some people felt there was too much micromanagement,'' Harris said, ``that some practices reflected too much oversight, and reflected a lack of confidence in their ability to do the job.''

Franklin-Suber said she was confident in the job Johnson was doing, though she believed some changes in ``procedures, ways of communicating with lawyers'' might improve the unit.

Franklin-Suber is herself known for a controlling, hands-on management style, and some lawyers complain privately they have too little autonomy, get too many last-minute demands and see too much conflict among top managers.

Franklin-Suber described herself as a ``type-A'' personality, and admits she may have ruffled feathers when she took the job two years ago.

She realigned some management functions and tightened reporting requirements, she said.

In addition to hiring Harris for her review of the civil rights unit, Franklin-Suber has hired a New Jersey-based firm, CAM Consulting Services to advise her on other management issues and develop training materials for lawyers.

Harris and CAM Consulting are to be paid a maximum of $11,000 each for their work.

Even Franklin-Suber's critics say that she is a smart, hard-working lawyer and that despite the stress and tension in the office, the department does high-quality work.

During her tenure the Law Department has handled matters such as the complex tax lien sale and the Kvaerner shipyard deal.

``I'm direct, I'm firm, I'm clear with the lawyers. I have high expectations,'' Franklin-Suber said. ``I may be tough on my people but I care about them.''

Mayor Rendell said he was aware of the allegation of bias within the Law Department, and said it was the right thing for Franklin-Suber to bring Harris in to clear it up.``Anyone who knows anything about Stephanie knows she would never tolerate such a thing,'' Rendell said.

He added that Franklin-Suber can be ``rough and tough and demanding,'' but, he said, she was a great city solicitor.

Send e-mail to daviesd@phillynews.com

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