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  • Conflicts on GPS tracker

    The City of Grand Rapids spent $720,000 to install GPS units in city vehicles — a move it says will make workers more efficient.

    But Target 8 learned the city also has used GPS tracking devices to suspend some city workers and issue warnings to others. An investigation based on GPS information also led to the forced resignation of a long-time Grand Rapids police officer.

    “They don’t have to leave their office, they can watch us on screen,” said a city forestry worker, who was suspended without pay late last year. “That’s what they do; they watch every move we make.”

    Records obtained by Target 8 through the Freedom of Information Act show the city suspended seven forestry workers in November and December without pay after GPS devices on their vehicles showed they were sometimes out of their assigned areas and taking long breaks.

    “When we was out on a job, we would take breakfast and that was basically what it was, is they didn’t want us going and having breakfast,” said a second forestry worker.

    GPS pinpointed some of the forestry workers’ favorite hangouts — Fat Boy on Plainfield Avenue NE, a Subway on Wealthy Street SE, New Beginnings on Michigan Street NE, Sandy’s Donuts on the West Side and the John Ball Park Pavilion, a quiet spot on top of a hill.

    City workers get half an hour for lunch, but GPS records showed one that went for an hour and 35 minutes. They get a 15-minute break in the morning and afternoon, but GPS showed they routinely went for a half-hour. One lasted 52 minutes.

    “Some crews don’t get an afternoon break, so they take a little longer one in the morning,” one of the forestry workers said.

    However, GPS records show there were some days where the morning and afternoon breaks added up to more than an hour.

    Several times, according to records, someone disabled the GPS units on the forestry trucks.

    Two of the suspended forestry workers agreed to speak to Target 8, but only if they were not identified.

    “I think we were singled out,” one of the workers said.

    All of the forestry workers are back on the job. Most got a day or two off, but two were suspended for three days for lying to their bosses.

    One questioned why his bosses don’t have GPS units in their vehicles.

    “If it’s good enough for the employees to have it on, what about having it on the mayor and everybody on straight through?” the worker said. “How come not everybody’s got GPS? If it’s such an important unit to have, how come not everybody’s got it?”

    So far, the city has installed GPS on 260 vehicles — garbage trucks, cars driven by housing inspectors, fire trucks and every police patrol car.

    Three years ago, a GPS unit led to the forced resignation of a long-time Grand Rapids police officer after it confirmed she was taking unauthorized breaks outside her patrol area.

    The city last year warned two sewer workers after GPS confirmed they were taking more than half-hour morning breaks at restaurants.

    GPS also confirmed another worker was driving his city vehicle home.

    “As you will notice, (the worker) makes multiple stops at his home over the course of the day, including lunch where he exceeds the typical 30-minute lunch period,” according to a memo.

    That led to a warning in January.

    “I have been monitoring (the worker’s) vehicle patterns lately and this type of daily travel pattern is quite common for him. This should be considered a verbal warning for him and that we will continue to monitor his travel patterns,” a supervisor wrote.

    But it was the suspension of the forestry workers that sent the loudest message.

    “The public is going to say, ‘Good, I’m glad that they did something about it,’” said Grand Rapids Public Services Director James Hurt.

    The city says GPS is only part of what the technology does. It’s also an Internet hot spot, turning cars and trucks into mobile offices.

    Currently, dispatchers don’t know if a fire truck — perhaps headed back from training — could be just around the corner from a medical emergency, he said.The city started installing GPS on fire trucks about six months ago. About six months from now, once it’s integrated into Central Dispatch, dispatchers should be able to use it to send the nearest fire truck to emergencies, said Acting Deputy Fire Chief Kevin Sehlmeyer.

    “The idea here is if somebody’s half a block away, and they can be there in 30 seconds,” Sehlmeyer said.

    City union leaders said they don’t believe the city is abusing GPS. The GPS units are not hidden. Employees know they’re there.

    “There’s really no place to hide these,” said Grand Rapids Labor Relations Manager Ken Deering.

    Deering said city officials don’t follow the vehicles in real-time, even though the system is set up to do that.

    “Nobody in this city actually has the time to do that,” Deering said.

    Instead, they look up the history of a vehicle’s moves, including how fast it went and where. That usually happens after a complaint, which could be filed after groups of city cars are spotted at a single location. That is what happened to those forestry workers, who plant, trim and cut down trees.

    Since they were busted, the forestry workers said they now skip breaks, or make it fast food.

    “It’s to the point where you don’t dare make a move because what is the right way to turn?” one of the workers said. “Where do we go? What street do we travel down?”

     

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