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The Spirit of Christmas That Bureaucracy Killed

At the Los Angeles City Bureau of Street Lighting this year, they’re telling the tale of the bureaucrat who stole Christmas.

Once upon a time, last week, a retiring city employee decided to make an anonymous donation to foot the costs of the bureau’s annual Christmas party and left $1,600 in an envelope--marked “For Bureau of Street Lighting Party. Merry Christmas"--on a fellow staffer’s desk.

But the unexpected tidings of joy for the Department of Public Works division’s employees soon fell prey to bureaucratic suspicion by its director, George A. Eslinger, over the “propriety” of the gift.

The Christmas spirit was soon buried in red tape, and the party, scheduled for today, was canceled by bureau members. No catered food. No skit by the “aspiring actors” among bureau employees. No Christmas carols sung by students from the Lockwood Avenue Elementary School, adopted as a charity by the bureau.

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Eslinger said he wondered if the donation presented a possible “conflict of interest.”

“It was such an exorbitant amount, excessively extravagant,” he said. “We were concerned about what to do with it. It’s unheard of.”

When a party committee representing the bureau’s 160 staffers, who were each to pay $10 for the event, learned of the donation last week, “everyone was so excited,” said one employee, who asked that his name not be used. But on learning of Eslinger’s response, he added, “the merry meeting turned out to be a real dirge.”

“Following my own intuition and management responsibilities, and not knowing the source, I felt very uncomfortable,” Eslinger said, and suggested using only $800 for the party, and donating $800 to Lockwood School.

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But, according to an unsigned memo circulating around the bureau, the anonymous donor said he wanted the money used only for his colleagues.

Laura Landry, party committee chairwoman, could not be reached Tuesday for comment on the cancellation. But another staffer said that “everyone was too demoralized” to continue planning the event.

“It’s caused a furor, I’m afraid, which I regret.” Eslinger said. But he added that he was not to blame.

“The whole thing was under the control of a volunteer committee,” he said. “I gave no orders or instructions other than I didn’t feel it would be appropriate to accept $1,600. It was their decision not to go forward.”

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