A management crisis is sweeping the rank and file at the state Department of Environmental Quality.
Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with keeping the air clean, busting corporate polluters and making sure drinking water doesn't contain too many strange chemicals.
Instead, the agency--which was roundly criticized by state auditors earlier this year for failing to enforce environmental laws--is in an uproar over a large, red letter "A" emblazoned on identification badges.
A couple of weeks ago, about 40 employees signed a petition complaining about the big, red "A," claiming it might be negatively compared with The Scarlet Letter of Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic novel about an adulteress.
"I certainly do not look forward to receiving comments that the scarlet letter could evoke," one DEQ worker wrote in an electronic message to agency Director Ed Fox on April 19.
This message deeply troubled Fox, who prides himself on fostering an atmosphere of teamwork, respect, openness and sensitivity. Fox spent several days contemplating how to respond.
Finally, late on the afternoon of April 22, the solution came to Fox. He typed an intriguing memorandum to all DEQ employees. The memo is notable not only for Fox's resolution of the problem, but also for its butchery of the English language.
When a printout of the electronic message made its way to New Times, it was dismissed as a prank to embarrass Fox. But journalistic curiosity led to a public-records request to DEQ and, amazingly, the missive turned out to be authentic.
The agency records show that rather than simply dismissing the complaint as frivolous, Fox decided to modify the ID badges by doing what bureaucrats do best--adding more signage.
"Therefore I have decided to order black 'z's to place on top of the lower half of the 'A's. When they are recieved [sic] they will be distributed with instrucions [sic] on how to place them on your existing badge," Fox announced.
Fox says he didn't spend a great deal of time writing the memo and that his goal was to address the concerns of employees.
"I just sat at my computer and just typed it up and sent it so I didn't waste anybody else's time," he says. "So, if there are errors in it, they are mine. It was simply because there was only so much time I could spend on it without, you know, I have real work to do."
Fox says he noticed no errors in his April 22 memorandum, other than his mistaken belief that he misspelled the word "heroine." (A misguided DEQ worker had pointed out the alleged misspelling after the memo was distributed.)
"I noticed the heroine one, but I didn't catch that until later. Why? What else?" Fox asks New Times.
Oddly enough, "heroine" was one of the few tricky words Fox spelled correctly.
Besides a slew of misspellings and typographical errors, Fox--a former attorney for Snell & Wilmer, one of the most prestigious law firms in Phoenix--mischaracterizes some key points of Hawthorne's book.
Marvin Fisher, an English professor emeritus at Arizona State University, notes that Fox makes several erroneous assertions.
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For example, Fox wrote, "For those of you who dont [sic] know the book, a married woman (whos [sic] husband is out oftown [sic]) in colonial America becomes pregnant by the town minister."
Actually, Fisher says, the husband was out of the country. In fact, he had never been in town, having abandoned her in Europe. The hubby later shows up in the colonies to make her life miserable.
Most of all, though, Fisher was aghast at Fox's writing skills.
"I would be wary of leaving my faith in the hands of an attorney who could not produce a better brief than this," says Fisher.