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The Harrison report: it's good that it is public

Original post made by Diana Diamond, Palo Alto Online blogger, on Apr 25, 2007

First of all, the city acted correctly in releasing the disciplinary report about Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison to the public. According to two First Amendment lawyers I have talked to, once a public employee is formally disciplined, that action trumps any privacy issue concerning the employee. In other words, according to the law, the public is entitled to know why a high-ranking city employee was disciplined.

And the report, to its credit, is specific, and indeed shows that there were many reasons why Harrison received a three-week suspension without pay. In the public employee working world, I have been told that such a suspension, particularly without pay, is the step before termination.

I think there are two facets to Harrison's personality. One part of her is the efficient, intelligent, hard-working person who has been running this city very effectively from day-to-day. She is the hands-on person who knows exactly what is going on and who can tell you what is happening. As a member of the press, I have appreciated her candor.

But there is the other part of Harrison that can shut you off immediately. I know from my previous job at the Daily News that if our paper wrote something she did not like, calls from reporters were not returned. I once wrote a column where I referred to her friendship with Police Chief Lynne Johnson, and since that incident a year-and-a-half ago, she has refused to talk to me – even though the Mercury-News had run an entire column about the friendship.

According to the report, Harrison "engaged in a pattern of disrespectful and offensive behavior toward employees (since 1995) by publicly rebuking and berating them in front of others," and had problems working with three of the city's top officials – City Manager Frank Benest, City Auditor Sharon Erickson and City Attorney Gary Baum. She was suspended for creating "a culture of fear" at city hall. The report said, for example, that if Erickson issued an audit that was critical of some department reporting to Harrison, that the assistant city manager would not talk to the auditor for months.

Harrison also engaged in "vindictive and retaliatory conduct toward employees you (Harrison) qHR feel may have wronged you," Benest said in the memo released Tuesday.

Life at City Hall can be full of challenges, conflicts and disagreements, and the first lesson is that disagreements are not necessarily bad and certainly do not need to be personal.

Harrison has apologized to the three, and has promised to change her behavior. That's a good first step, and I wish her the best.

I also am glad the report is public. Since the disciplinary action occurred, rumors have been circulating around the city wondering what Emily did, and the rumors were worse than the report itself. Now we know the facts, and can all move forward together.



Comments (32)

 +   Like this comment
Posted by good move
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 25, 2007 at 9:09 am

Now if only the Board of Education had been that brave in confronting the problematic atmosphere caused by Mary Frances Callan.


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Posted by Dan
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 25, 2007 at 10:52 am

Diana,

I read that Harrison also criticized some man's relgion and political party. Is this true?

If it is true, shouldn't this be referred to the Human Rights Comission in Palo Alto?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Swami Alto
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 25, 2007 at 11:13 pm

Dan, Why is it that some people want to continue the hurt?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Dan
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 26, 2007 at 6:03 am

Swami, if Harrison did, indeed, harrass some fellow because of his religion and his political beliefs, this is a form of hate. I think the HRC should look into it. If it is true, she should be summarily fired. It would be too hurtful to keep her as one of our paid employees. It would mean that we tolerate hate.


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Posted by Alexander
a resident of another community
on Apr 26, 2007 at 6:27 am

Even worse, according to the City Manager's disciplinary memorandum (see the text post on Palo Alto Online) she made mocking statements regarding individuals because they were Catholic, "fundamentalist", Republican, and/or male! Ms. Harrison was simply out of control, inapporpriately empowered, and this had been going on for more than a decade. The question is why did it take so long to make her accountable for her behavior?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Ted M
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 26, 2007 at 7:58 am

I guess I was just surprised to find that there are Republicans and Christians working for Palo Alto. I figured it must be some kind of typo.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Dan
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 26, 2007 at 5:17 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Rodham
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 26, 2007 at 9:35 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 26, 2007 at 10:49 pm

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

The reporting out of this current material is irresponsible. How does the Weekly think this will impact supervisory oversight at city hall? From now on, every word and nuance of a supervisor will be weighed with this incident in mind. How much will that imjpact city efficiency? How much will it _cost_ our taxpayers in lost efficiencies?

The Weekly's Publisher needs to start thinking hard about this, and stop hiding behind "the public's right to know" as an excuse to sell more eyeballs to advertisers, no matter the content. This is journalism at its pathetic worst.

btw, I in no way am defending any of the alleged abusive actions committed by the city staffer in question. Keeping in mind that there is another side to many of the repotage in that report.

The person disciplined _was disciplined_. Her name has been smeared all over town, and Diana Diamond, one of the people who asked for that smearing, is now wishing her victim well. If there is hypocrisy in any of this, Diana owns a lot of it.

This is a low point for the Weekly. What good does this do except create interior dissension, and make internal city management more difficult to control? What if there are following lawsuits, even if they're not won by the plaintiffs. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]
From this point on, I wouldn't blame the city one bit for stonewalling the Weekly. What dose the city have to gain by offering up information?

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

There has been no _deep, systemic_ problem at city hall re: this issue. Contrast this issue with the systemic problem caused by PAUSD's executive team. Now THAT's news, because the entire entrerprise has been seriously compromised by rank incompetence in personnel policy. That is NOT true of city hall.

Of course, the Weekly will go on to continue to collect from advertisers, some of whom will be sold on the strength of of hits to this web site. I always thought the Weekly was a cut above. Lately, I've begun to question that assumption.

Anyone in the newspaper business knows that the national dailies are struggling, and that the real nugget left in journalism- in print - is local news. The Weekly and the Daily have been playing up this trend, and slowly but surely there has been a slow loosening of judgement on issues like this, with local papers trying to pretend they're "breaking news" by going after junk like this. What a sad legacy.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Dude
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 27, 2007 at 5:12 am

Harrison should have been fired long time ago.
However, it is clear that it is quite difficult to fire a public employee. What the city management could not do, publicity of this whole matter will do so.



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Posted by Dan
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 27, 2007 at 7:04 am

Emily Harrison certainly has her impassioned protectors (e.g. Mike). If anyone brings up her biases and harrassment and hateful remarks as a public administrator, they call THAT person a hate monger. Harrison has been protected for years at City Hall by the likes of Mike. At long last, she needs to go.


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Posted by Alexander
a resident of another community
on Apr 27, 2007 at 8:51 am

Ms. Harrison's conduct is well documented in Mr. Benest's disciplinary letter posted on Palo Alto Online. What appears to be Palo Alto's implicit PC code, until very recently unchallenged, is that its not really a big problem if an individual's faith (if Christian), political views (if conservative), and/or gender (if male) is mocked. Hopefully this ugly experience will be a cause for reflection about the issue of PC double standards in the workplace and in public discourse. Respect for the dignity of individuals should not be conditioned on politically correct faith or lack thereof, PC gender or sexual orientation, or PC political convictions. Its sad that these obvious facets of tolerance, a core American value, have to be re-learned in PC towns like Palo Alto. And then only after an ugly scandal.


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Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 27, 2007 at 10:41 am

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Anyone put in a position to have to be near-slandered every Monday for _months_ might develop an issue or two that carries over into the workplace, wouldn't you think?

Again, the behavior was not excusible, but the bahvior was _punished_. What we need is a new kind of newspaper, one that begins to publish the raw and sordid details of those who freely expose the populace to the raw and sordid details of the lives of oothers, and cause needless hurt. Where isi the judgment in all this, except for the judgment toward more profit accruing from statistics that show increased hits to a web page when trash like this iis published?

The public revelation of these documents is a mistake, and it's a mistake that will HELP our city increase its chances of being litigated against. This little nugget was deleted from my last post, when I included the Weekly's publisher's name - why? Someone made a decision to publish these details? Who was it? How about an internal investigation? How would that feel? Frankly, I'm tired of the "free press" that uses freedom in this way, in a way that causes hurt instead of healing.

No one can suggest muzzling the press, bec ause it's foundational to a free democracy, but thata doesn't mean that the choices and motivations for publishing certain kinds of material shouldn't be call out, and challenged. How is the press held accountable?

These public document revelations, beyond what any individual can find out by trekking down to city hall (to satisfy prurient interest in matters like this), are irresponsible - personally, and professionally. This action will NOT help our city run bettter.

The action that our city manager took was intended to correct the situation - a public suspension was imposed, with all the shame, embarrassment, and repudiation that an action like that implies. That should have been enough, but I guess the "delivering eyeballs to advertisers" tendency toward revenue accretion got the best of those who let these documents go public.

Given the amount of vitriol that senior public employees have to endure at City Council meetings, and given the witch hunting in the press that seeks after transgression, in detail, even _after_ the latter has been punished, it's a wonder that _any_ competent senior employee would want to work here.

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

This is part of what goes to the heart of the frustration of being a city employee in this city. I, for one, am sick and tired of the press being an enabler for those who _persistently_ want to destroy people.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Alexander
a resident of another community
on Apr 27, 2007 at 10:56 am

Mike, the core issue here is that the newest form of bigotry in our society assumes it to be ok to be disrespectful of a person's religion, gender, and political beliefs if they are not PC. Put plainly, this form of bigotry in a PC town like Palo Alto tolerates mocking a devout Christian conservative male. By way of contrast, intolerance toward other faiths or lack of any religious faith, liberal political views, and PC gender or sexual orientation would never be acceptable. This is a good "teaching moment" about the meaning and value of tolerance, surely a core American value, in a contemporary PC town. Palo Alto civic leaders ought to affirm the civic virtue of tolerance for all (or no) religious and political creed(s), gender, etc. and not just the politically correct ones.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Dan
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 27, 2007 at 11:04 am

Mike, you got the wrong guy. I never attended any of those meetings, and I have never spoken on the issue (until now). In fact I have only attended about 5-6 council meetings in over 20 years.

If the comments were as vitriolic as you suggest, then you have a point. However, if the discussion was about possible conflicts of interest, then they had a point.

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 27, 2007 at 11:16 am

Alexander, We're in agreement that disrepectful action in the workplace, no matter their content, are not acceptable. That said, I fear that you are globalizing this issue to one where you assume that the offenses committed are a part of City Hall's culture. Let's get htis clear; they're not. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

That the behavior you castigate is generally embedded within city hall culture, or even Palo Alto culture, is CLEARLY not so. For the most part, the person who is subject of this post has done a great job; this city runs very well, given the constraints. More thought shuold have been given prior to publication of the seedy details. This is a failing of the Weekly, who are pandering to base instincts, and giving voice to some of the more hateful elements in our city. Where is journalistic judgment in all of this? The latter isn't a science, but it's easy enough to call this pig, in this case, by a name - that name is "poor journalism".

Punishment - PUBLIC punishment - was dolled out. Shouldn't that be enough? I am bitterly disappointed in Diana Diamond and the Weekly's publisher for letting these documents go public. Doing so will NOT help our City. Doing so ONLY helps the Weekly, as - in this case - it serves the never-ending public thirst for cheap gossip and dirty details.

Judgment and character should ALSO be assumed as a prerequisite to publish a newspaper. In this case, if remedial action was possible, those responsible for doing further, unnecessary damage to city process (not to mention the additional harm caused to another human being, one who has already suffered ppunichment and pubic humiliation).


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 27, 2007 at 11:28 am

Dan, it appears that you would like to see our city sued into oblivion. It also appears that you want to draw out an issue that was dealt with by a PUBLIC and HUMILIATING suspension. Shouldn't that be enough? HRC? You have to be kidding. More public rancor over something that has _already been handled_?

The pile on people and attack dogs who thirst for city staff blood in this town are FAR more harmful to our civic health than anything contained in this issue. Why the Weekly continues to want to provide fuel for those who want our city to be in perpetual crisis is beyond me - or, on second thought, maybe I should accept what the cynical side of me is saying and conjecture that it's all about web page hits and profit. Is that what's driving this public revelation, and the harm mthat it has already caused - both to a reputation that was already wounded, and to a city that can hardly afford more public comtroversy that a certain nfew will delight in feedeing on?

It's a funny thing; we pride ourselves for being so "intelligent", but we fail to find coherent ways to adapt in Palo Alto. Perhaps we need to think more about what SUSTAINS civic coherence. One thing I know for sure, in my gut, is that this sort of public revelation doesn't even come close to meeting that standard.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Alexander
a resident of another community
on Apr 27, 2007 at 11:31 am

Mike,
Sure, "we're all biased to some degree" as part of the human condition. A core American value since our founding, however, is tolerance. Our nation's progress toward living out this value in everyday life has been uneven throughout our history for sure, yet we have expanded our understanding and practice of tolerance over the years too. The sad state of civic affairs in PC American towns, however, reverses this trend toward tolerance and makes it more or less ok for a senior civic offical to be openly intolerant of an "unPC" religious faith, an "UnPC" political perspective, and an "UnPC" gender. This is plain wrong and needs to be condemned - and certainly in no way rationalized by reference to how effective or even how brow-beaten the offending public servant.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Dan
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 27, 2007 at 11:45 am

Mike, I actually agree with a basic point you have made, that public officials are under the spotlight and overcriticized. In this particular case, however, the boil should have been lanced years ago. If Harrison is left in office, Palo Alto's reputation will be harmed much more than it already is.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 27, 2007 at 11:51 am

Why should that be the case? Cannot an organization grow and heal from an experience like this? The subject of this post is not universally reviled within her work environment; I know that to be a fact. She has done a fine job otherwise. There is healing to do. The offender has been put on notice. That should be the final word, unless further violations are committed. That's where something liek this should stop, instead of teasing them out and creating more dysfunction and community tension. Will the Weekly apologize for the harm that publishing these documents cause. Probably not. So, where's the press' responsibility in all this. Where's its accountability? Why is it that the only "corrections" we see are in a little box on page 7, instead of a name attached to an action that was committted as a misjudgment. That, I guess, is the advantage of being a memeber of the press, with the ability to "out" anyone one wished, without concern for the black swans that appear on the horizon as a direct result of one's misjudged actions through publication.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Alexander
a resident of another community
on Apr 27, 2007 at 12:01 pm

Mike,

"Doing a fine job otherwise" does not and surely cannot excuse in any way the years of bigoted, abusive, retaliatory, and disrespectful actions documnented in Mr. Benest's disciplinary letter to Ms. Harrison. In the private sector it would not take ten years to fire someone who conducted him or herself that way, regardless of how fine a job he or she did "therwise". More like 10 minutes.


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Posted by Dan
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 27, 2007 at 12:13 pm

Mike, you must not have read some of the stories in print about this case. Maybe you are too mad about the fact that it IS in print to be rational at this moment.

Harrison had several chances to clean up her act, yet she did not. Her bigoted remarks are over the line, period.

Life is full of black swans, but this is not one of them. It is fully predictable that if Harrison is left on the job, the reputation of Palo Alto will sink.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 27, 2007 at 12:27 pm

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.] Have you any idea how many 100's of thousands of interactions that an asistant city manager must have in 20 years of service? Are you aware of the FACT that the documents posted only present ONE side of the story?

Again, this doesn't excuse occasoinal bad, or abusive, behavior, which WAS punished with the suspension.

Dan, I almost have to laugh when you speak of the reputation of Palo Alto sinking. I get around, and can tell you that hiring senior executives for city jobs is going to be FAR more difficult than it was before this happened. Politics and city management problems are present in all cities, but Palo Alto is a special case.

It's said that people get the government they deserve. Maybe - based on the cheap shot tactics used by a few here, and their emboldening by the press - that just might be true.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Dan
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 27, 2007 at 12:55 pm

Mike, I can't figure why you are off on this tangent. You are attacking the press, attacking those who attack bigoted remarks by city officials, attacking others, while still doing an Alamo defense of the perp. Is she your sister?

Don't worry about Palo Alto hiring a new administrator, they will stand in line to get here. It's only sad that we put up with this one for so long.


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Posted by Alexander
a resident of another community
on Apr 27, 2007 at 1:28 pm

Mike,

The documents pertaining to the Harrison case posted on Palo Alto Online show a sad, ugly, long-standing pattern of abuse and bigotry. The letter of apology from Ms. Harrison to Mr. Benest suggests that the evidence presented in this scandal is compelling. What's needed is a full, frank statement by civic decison-makers that presumed effectiveness, "making the train run on time", does not confer on one a license to engage in bigoted, abusive conduct toward subordinates or anyone else. Dismissing Ms. Harrison would be an effective way send such a message.


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Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 27, 2007 at 2:06 pm

Dan, Alexander, the "perpetrator" has already been punished. That punishment shuold have been enough; in fact, it's the most severe punishment short of outright dismissal. It appears that both of you want to accelerate the process.

Hopefully, our City Council will take the City Manager's word that his action was sufficient, and let our city run fromo there.

I have at no time defended the actions of the person who is the subject of this thread's discussions - in fact, just the opposite.

What IS apparent, is that some here delight in details that will HURT city government.

From here, I will let policy take its course, and stand firm with my disappointment in the Weekly's choice, as well as an assuredness of the wrong-headed nature of your positions.

What YOU'RE defending is a furthering of inefficiency in our city, and putting the city at further financial risk. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 27, 2007 at 2:37 pm

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]
I have in past times defended Ms. Diamonds right to express herself, but her recent work has been nothing but hurtful to the ultimate health of our city. That the Weekly is complicit in this, in a transparent design to sell eyeballs to advertisers, reflects badly on any editor that has willfully permitted the placement of Ms. Diamond's recent positions in a place where they can impact community. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.] I hold out hope that Ms. Diamond, and the Weekly's publisher will get religion on journalistic responsibility; if not, they will end up losing respect, but, who knows, maybe selling a few more online ads and newspapers. if that's what it's all about, maybe we need another press competitor in this city - one with a more balanced approach to the whole.

This will post to the Daily News, so, edit away.


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Posted by Dan
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 27, 2007 at 2:41 pm

Mike, it is hard for either of us to truly express our views, because important elements keep getting deleted.

Let me give it a try this way: There is a big elephant in the room, and it keeps getting danced around. Somebody or some interest group has protected Harrison for too long. It was inevitalbe that it would come to this. If Frank Benest had done this stuff, he would have been gone a long time ago.


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Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 27, 2007 at 3:13 pm

Dan, A look at the documentation shows a number of incidents, over a long period of time, from _one_ perspective. How do we know that the persons claiming abuse did not invite abuse, or commit actions or speech that inciited retaliation? That said, it's still no excuse for the behavior that was punished, but there is, as far as I know, no general sense that the person who is subject of these pathetically irresponsile revelations by the Weekly is _generally_ toxic to the workings of city government.

I have worked with both subordinates and superiors who were hard to get along with, in general. I have also worked with those who were persistently toxic to the work environment, who consistently demanded performance that was impossible to deliver, who _every day_ -berated fellow employees. THIS case is not the latter, not even close.

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 27, 2007 at 3:24 pm

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

What's further galling, is ithat nowo that this crisis has occurred, is that we will probably see some measured editorial in next Wednesday's Weekly, calling for "healing", or some such, with no claim or apology made by the Weekly for it complicity in the problem.

The subject of this thread has her punishment. Now, I'm waiting to hear an apology from those at the Weekly, and in other corners ofo our community - most calling themselves nurtering liberals - for unneccessarily extending the shame, humilation and punishment that has come out of this situation. I'm betting that that's an apology we'll never see.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Dan
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 27, 2007 at 3:44 pm

Mike, I can agree with some of what you just said. For isntance, I agree that there is rarely balance presented in a public report about a public official and a subordinate. America loves the underdog, so that it that. I hate a lot of newspaper hypocritcal and self-serving reporting, too, but it will continue to happen - the price to be paid for the First Amendment.

Mike, the thing I simply cannot understand is why you are sticking with Harrison. She is poison. If Frank Benest had even come close to saying what Harrison said, he would have been gone, period. I will probably be tossed for suggesting the following, but here goes: If Benest had called one of his subordinates an "ignorant, dem, atheist" he would be long gone. If I was allowed to choose among other possible quotes I would have, but then I would have been tossed. Maybe I still will....

With respect to your complaints about the Weekly, this is pretty dicey stuff, here. The First Amendment seems to follow the Golden Rule: Them with the gold rule. Bill Johnson has the gold, so.... Just get used to it, Mike, and quit complaining. This ain't the Soviet Union, not even close. Johnson will continue to run his paper as he sees fit, including the molding of messages on his blog. He owns it, and he controls it...and I agree with that principle.


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Posted by Alexander
a resident of another community
on Apr 27, 2007 at 3:48 pm

Mike,

Blaming the victim(s) just won't wash. The issue is the nature and persistence of bigotry, disrespect, and retaliatory conduct toward others in the workplace by Ms. Harrison as detailed in Mr. Benest's letter of discipline and at least partially confirmed in Ms. Harrison's own letter of apology to Mr. Benest. These documents are posted on Palo Alto Online. If the bigotry and abuse were directed at politically correct targets - PC religious faiths or lack of religious faith, PC political views, and/or PC gender or sexual orientation, in Palo Alto do you really think that the person responsible would still have a job?


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