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Why was Emily Harrison suspended?
Original post made
by Diana Diamond, Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Mar 28, 2007
It all seems very strange. Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison has been suspended from her job without pay for three weeks. Council members were notified a couple of weeks ago by City Manager Frank Benest that there had been "an incident" and that Harrison will be suspended. Council members were given only a few details because, they were told, it was a "personnel" matter. Council members now say they cannot comment on the discipline, or tell me happened because it's confidential. And some council members admitted that when told by Benest of the suspension, they didn't ask questions why the discipline was imposed because it was a personnel issue.
Of course it's a personnel matter, but that doesn't mean the council and the public don't have a right to know what happened to the person that is second in command in this city. In fact, when Benest is out of town, as has frequently happened, it is Harrison who is running this city. As the governing board in the city, the council is expected and entitled to know exactly what happened to a sometimes acting city manager and why the discipline was imposed.
The public and the press were not notified of the suspension. Someone sent an anonymous note to the Weekly, and that is the way the newspaper learned about it a couple days later.
I don't buy the "personnel" excuse. Yes, public employees have some privacy, but when wrongdoings are involved, the public's right to know trumps the privacy issue. I have been told that there is case law that says once a public employee has been officially investigated and discipline has occurred, the "personnel" protection no longer applies.
At the federal level, we are now going through an examination of why eight prosecutors were fired by the U.S. attorney general. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez originally said it was for "poor performance" but Congress is now learning it may have been for political reasons. "Personnel matter" doesn't seem to be an excuse at the federal level.
In Harrison's case, evidently there was a run-in with another employee at some point, and a complaint was lodged, but that doesn't tell us much. What exactly happened and why did that lead to a three-week suspension without pay? Disagreements can frequently occur on a job, and they normally don't result in suspensions, particularly suspensions without pay. (Two Palo Alto police officers, Kahn and Lee, were involved a couple of years ago in a case where a black man was harassed. They were suspended with pay before and during the trial.)
Were there complaints about Harrison? Or is she being treated unfairly? Did Benest overreact? Or is the three-week suspension an indication that there is more at stake here and that perhaps Harrison is on her way out?
Palo Alto residents should not have to speculate about what happened.. At the very least, I think Benest should have immediately released an announcement on the suspension, including the reasons for it, and be around to answer questions. The public has a right to know, particularly since Harrison has been running the city.
It's all part of being an open government.
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Posted by Charles "Daddy" Marx
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 9, 2007 at 1:57 pm
Emily Harrison returns to work April 10th, just in time to help Frank Benest celebrate his seventh anniversary as Palo Alto City Manager. (Benest's first day as City Manager was April 10, 2000.)
What's the appropriate seventh year anniversary gift for someone who just suspended you and reduced your annual income by over $10,000?
Someone leaked the fact of Harrison's suspension.
Someone also refused to identify the 19 Utility Department employees, including nine managers and supervisors, who were disciplined as a result of the Utility Department scandal that Harrison resolved with the help of Administrative Services Director Carl Yeats, who is retiring at the end of 2007 according to a gratuitous comment Benest made during a Council meeting earlier this year.
Six of the 19 disciplined employees were terminated are forced to resign, in addition to Director John Ulrich and Assistant Director Scott Bradshaw.
Even the Weekly would not identify the names of the disciplined managers when it reported in its editorial of July 6, 2005, that it "had obtained the names of two other managers who suddenly disappeared from work with no announcement in the past month, plus two others said to be on leave."
Yet the someone who leaked Harrison's suspension to the Weekly must have been confident that the suspension would be reported, while the someone who refused to disclose the names of the disciplined Utility Department employees could apparently rely on the Weekly to keep secret the names of the disciplined managers it had learned of on its own.
Maybe the someone who leaked Harrison's suspension to the Weekly and the someone who refuses to name the 19 disciplined Utility Department employees is the same "someone".
The process that led to Harrison's suspension involved interviews with a large number of city employees who ultimately report to City Manager Frank Benest and is reminiscent of the interview process the City Council used in 1981 when there was a dispute between City Manager Bill Zaner and City Attorney Roy Abrams, which the Council ended by interviewing a large number of employees who ultimately reported to the City Manager.
Meanwhile, Harrison's suspension and its disclosure come at the same time that neighboring Menlo Park is beginning a six-month search for a City Manager, where two of Harrison's former colleagues, Audrey Seymour (Assistant to the City Manager in Palo Alto) and Kent Steffens (Assistant Director of Public Works in Palo Alto) have successively been named as Interim City Manager, and the deadline for submitting applications for the City Manager's job is April 30th.
The public disclosure of Harrison's suspension could adversely affect her potential candidacy for Menlo Park City Manager.
The salary Harrison lost when she was suspended also affects her retirement benefits should she choose to retire in the near future, because the amount of her retirement pay is directly related to the highest annual salary she received before retiring.
Should Harrison decide to remain a City employee for at least a year to restore her retirement benefit to its former amount, she has no guarantee that she will receive the same salary increases that other employees receive, or even retain her current salary, because Palo Alto management and professional salaries can vary substantially below (or above) the amount established for each position in the city's compensation schedule.
Should Harrison decide to retire, the current and proposed city budgets include changes to employee expenses that would facilitate any transition.
The current fiscal year budget for the year ending June 30, 2007, includes a new mid-level management position at an annual cost of $149,748 that was first proposed by City Manager Frank Benest at the Finance Committee meeting of May 23, 2006, to "offload certain projects and administrative support functions and free up the Assistant City Manager [Harrison]" to "provide support to the department's oversight function."
In effect, for almost a year, Harrison has been training a mid-level manager as her potential successor.
For the fiscal year that starts July 1, 2007, Benest proposed a number of operating expense reductions to be reallocated to increase spending on existing infrastructure.
Curiously, in a document that proposed expense reductions, Benest included an increased annual expense of $242,133 in the Police Department to restore the position of Assistant Police Chief for better oversight and succession planning in the department headed by Harrison's friend and joint property owner Police Chief Lynne Johnson.
These two new annual management expenses total $391,881, although the addition of the Assistant Police Chief would be offset by the elimination of one Police Lieutenant for a savings of $193,362, resulting in a net increase in annual expenses for the two new management positions of $198,519.
The Utility Department scandal and the Harrison suspension may indicate that something is broken in Palo Alto's current system of government.
We have had city-owned utilities since 1896 for water, since 1898 for wastewater, since 1910 for electricity, and since 1917 for natural gas, but it is only recently that we have had scandals in the Utilities Department. (Remember the Utility Department employees who got paid overtime to play golf on the city's golf course?)
Palo Alto has had a Council-Manager system of governance for about half of its existence as an incorporated city -- incorporated 1894; voted for Council-Manager government in 1950.
Maybe it's time for a change.