Jan. 7 2009 12:00 AM

A mystery citizen snaps photos of city workers napping in a Quality Dairy parking lot. They were on break, but what would cause them to do such a thing?

The photos, at first look, seem incriminating enough: Two employees of the Lansing Department of Public Service asleep in the front seat of their snow-plow truck in the parking lot of the Quality Dairy at the corner of Cedar and Saginaw streets.

The man in the driver’s seat has his head tipped back, mouth dropped open. In the passenger seat, a female employee has her eyes closed, although she doesn’t appear to have fallen into the same depth of slumber as her colleague.

What is not clear from the pictures was how long they were napping and whether they were on some kind of  break.

Chad Gamble, director of the Public Service Department, and the workers’ boss, said that an investigation into the incident was conducted after he was made aware of it, the results of which he described as “just a case of two very dedicated employees making a wrong decision about taking a break in the wrong place.”

Gamble did confirm that a complaint was made to his office about the sleeping workers.

“We have very dedicated employees in the Public Service Department” who work extended shifts – sometimes around the clock. “Sometimes they become fatigued,” Gamble said.

John Pollard, a local activist and City Council meeting regular, circulated the photos of the workers to several media outlets. But Pollard denies being the photographer, saying that a local businessman snapped the shots.

The workers didn’t sleep through the impromptu photo shoot, however. Apparently the driver woke up during the photo shoot and told the photographer that he and his co-worker were “on their break.” Immediately after realizing they were unwitting contestants on a watchdog version of “Candid Camera,” the workers left the parking lot followed by the photographer, who claims to have observed them pulling into the city garage near Elm Street.

So were your tax dollars “asleep at the wheel,” as the e-mail from Pollard claimed? Not exactly.  Gamble said city workers are permitted to nap on their breaks because it’s their personal time. However, he added, “We need to make a better decision as a team” about the appropriate place to get a little shut-eye when the long nights and early mornings begin to take their toll.

Gamble also said all workers were made aware of the “dos and don’ts” of where and when to take breaks.

Being that there was no “hard and fast” rule dictating where employees are to take breaks, or how they are permitted to spend their breaks, no rule was actually broken, Gamble said. Without an offense, there is no punishment. Gamble confirmed the employees were not reprimanded, but were made aware their actions were not OK. Both employees feel “terribly bad” about the situation and were quite upset, Gamble said.

Of course, this begs the question as to why exactly the workers were so tired in the first place. The photos were taken Dec. 3 at approximately 2:50 p.m. A check of historical data on weather that day shows that there wasn’t a major snow event that would have necessitated “round-the-clock” plowing and salting. In fact, the precipitation from the three days prior to Dec. 3 was 0.6 inches. Even with the workers in “winter prep” mode and addressing any previous snowfall, was the job enough to literally exhaust the workers?

City employee Stan Shuck said Monday the incident happened “purely because of the size of the workforce.” The department, he said, is expected to accomplish the same amount of work with 25 percent of the workforce it previously had, leaving crews in a position where they are playing constant catch-up.

Shuck says the city has calculated that it would take 105 workers pulling eight-hour shifts between 24 and 36 hours to clear the city of snow. With, by his count, only 27 drivers available to operate snow plows, the more realistic timeframe for clear, snowless streets is closer to 120 hours. If snow continues to fall as workers are in the midst of clearing the city — even a day into their work — the task of the workers becomes Sisyphean in magnitude.

Speaking during public comment at Monday’s Council Committee of the Whole meeting, Shuck asked the Council, rhetorically, “How many (public service) employees do we need to supply core services to city residents?”

He answered himself that the city is far below the bare minimum number of employees required.

All of this makes the public image of Gamble’s department and its employees tenuous. It’s an image problem not lost on Gamble. “Our team is a great team. These photos don’t reflect that.”

Gamble said the size of the workforce did not factor into the behavior of the two employees. Like the Police and Fire departments, he said, his employees work long hours.

“They’re going to be tired, but that’s what we do,” he said. “The backbone of the city is the public service department.”