News

Frank Benest survives second-night evaluation

Council could lack six votes to fire the city manager, or city manager may have won support

At its second evaluation of City Manager Frank Benest in two days, the Palo Alto City Council spent less than an hour behind closed doors Tuesday night -- with no announcement following.

Another session was not scheduled, Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto said Wednesday, which may indicate the council lacked the six votes needed to terminate Benest or that a meeting will be scheduled later.

It could also mean that the council majority (or four-member minority) has opted to support Benest based on further assurances that he will focus on local matters.

Under state law, members of a public body are forbidden from discussing what happens in personnel-evaluation sessions. Prior to this week's meeting, however, several council members had expressed deep dissatisfaction with how the city is being run (see earlier story below).

Some report that Benest has become more involved with local matters in recent months.

Among other issues, he has been engaged in negotiations with Stanford University relating to the huge expansion/rebuilding of the Stanford Medical Center and hospitals complex.

He also has been engaged in discussions relating to the expansion of the Stanford Shopping Center and building of a new hotel there.

The evaluation was scheduled last week by Vice Mayor Larry Klein, who chairs the Council Appointed Officers Committee, which unanimously requested the special evaluation. The committee oversees the four employees who report directly to the council: the city manager, city attorney, city auditor and city clerk.

All nine council members attended the Tuesday meeting, which followed a 2.5-hour closed meeting Monday night.

Benest has been under fire recently due to investigations of managers -- including supervisors in the Utilities Department, Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison and an un-named high-level manager who was the subject of three recent harassment or hostile-work-environment complaints.

Benest last week denied reports that he has changed city policies to require initial oral reports of personnel investigations, which some council members interpreted as a way to circumvent Public Records Act requests from the media.

A key issue reported earlier by some council members is Benest's reported absences from the city. Last December, the council held a rare second-in-a-year evaluation of Benest, and Benest outlined ways he planned to take more direct day-to-day supervision of key areas of the city.

Benest has a strong personal interest in developing the next generation of management-level employees, an avocation some critics say distracts him from city operations, leaving them to Harrison and others.

Four council members -- Dena Mossar, Bern Beecham, Judy Kleinberg and LaDoris Cordell -- are serving their last months on the council. Of those, Mossar and Beecham have been openly critical of Benest's performance in the past, Kleinberg has expressed specific dissatisfactions and Cordell has been generally supportive of Benest.

If the current council does not act before the end of the year, Benest's job is secure for at least 90 days -- until April 2008 -- following the seating of the new council due to a contract amendment he and the three other appointed officials secured in 2005. The contract amendment specifies that no council appointed officer can be terminated within 90 days of a new council taking office.

Benest joined the city in 2000, after serving as a city manager in Brea and Colton, Calif. His Bryant Street home is co-owned by the city.

Benest is highly active in professional government-management organizations, where he leads training and development efforts and urges other cities to begin preparing for an unprecedented number of retirements in coming years, a "management gap" of major proportions.

Locally, he has been lauded for his role in the Mayfield negotiations, which created the new soccer fields on El Camino Real and Page Mill Road.

Benest suffered a personal tragedy in 2004, when his wife of 19 years died from cancer, leaving him to raise two young children, Noah and Leila. Within months, Benest began treatment for his own cancer of the tongue.

Benest has been thoughtful about his struggle to return to full involvement with city government.

In May 2007 Benest spoke on "Self-Renewal" at a conference in Calgary, Canada. He admitted he has "suffered losses and am now struggling with the challenge of self-renewal," according to his PowerPoint presentation on the conference Web site.

"We run out of dreams and find it difficult to create new ones," Benest said. He also said the "notion of retirement is outmoded," according to his PowerPoint presentation.

He counseled other experienced government leaders seeking renewal to: "Hold on to what's working; Let go of what is not working; Take on new learning and explore options; Move on to new commitments that renew you."

On the Web site of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), Benest explains why he joined the organization.

"I derive great meaning as a local-government management professional. Even if my City Council disparages me or fires me, that does not jeopardize my professional identity or status," Benest wrote.

For additional background on Benest and his complicated relationship with the City Council, see: www.paloaltoonline.com/weekly/story.php?story_id=3695.

EARLIER STORY, POSTED TUESDAY:

City Manager Frank Benest's job in jeopardy?

After an unusual 2.5-hour closed personnel "evaluation" session by the City Council Monday night, City Manager Frank Benest still had his job.

But it may be hanging in the balance.

His evaluation was continued until Tuesday night, Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto announced at 10:20 p.m. Monday.

Benest's evaluation was scheduled just last week by Vice Mayor Larry Klein, on behalf of the Council-Appointed Officers (CAO) Committee of the council, which unanimously requested the session.

The abrupt scheduling of the evaluation fueled speculation that Benest, hired in 2000, may be nearing the end of his term as manager of the city's 1,074-employees.

Last December, the council held a special two-night evaluation of Benest, his second evaluation that year -- a rarity for the four council-appointed officers (the city manager, city attorney, city clerk and city auditor).

"It's our responsibility to have oversight of the management," then-Mayor Judy Kleinberg said of the session, downplaying reported council dissatisfaction with Benest's performance. Some council members reportedly were concerned that he left too much day-to-day management to Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison and others.

Benest defended his management involvement, citing the hiring of Diane Jennings as library director and Valerie Fong as utilities director; ongoing negotiations with Stanford Shopping Center, auto dealers and Stanford Medical Center; finalizing the contract with labor unions; and budget cost-cutting.

He said he was taking the lead on land use, business, police, the budget, transportation and labor relations, while Harrison managed other areas.

Earlier, in August 2006, a $4,000 bonus for Benest barely received enough council votes. The bonus was openly opposed by then-Vice Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto and council members Klein and Dena Mossar.

Two recent situations have reportedly turned up the heat on Benest, insiders say. One is a recent summary report showing that numerous recommendations by City Auditor Sharon Erickson haven't been addressed over several years, and work hasn't even started on some recommended corrections.

The second is a controversy that surfaced last week about Benest allegedly ordering initial reports on personnel investigations be done orally, purportedly to skirt the state's Public Records Act -- in this case relating to a harassment/hostile work environment investigation of an un-named high-level manager. Benest has denied there has been a change in policy or that he had any such intent.

Earlier investigations of the Utilities Department and last spring of Harrison also have shaken confidence in Benest as a hands-on manager of a complex city, according to council members.

Benest earned $230,000 in 2006 and would have nine months' salary due if he loses the job, according to the city. Benest earlier secured the right to remain in his Bryant Street house -- which is jointly owned by the city -- until 2017 or until his children are through school in Palo Alto.

Six votes are needed to terminate the manager, according to the City Charter.

Comments

Posted by Carol Mullen, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 25, 2007 at 8:41 am

So, can we all relax and stop yelling about the virtues or defects of the brave new Palo Alto and its infrastructure? Bonds might make it to the ballot, but nothing's going to pass while Frank remains City Manager.


Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 25, 2007 at 12:46 pm

Carol,

Why you would spite your fellow citizens in their real needs, just because of your distaste for one person (or a few persons) is beyond me.

It seems you would rather see our city fall behind with failing infrastructure, lose property value, and lose services - just because you think you're right.

And how much will all these infrastructure repairs cost if we put off taking care of tham ASAP? Here's your answer: add 15-18% PER YEAR for construction inflation - for roads, schools, libraries, police infrastructure, etc. How are you going to explain THAT inefficiency to your neighbors?

You've been able to enjoy the investment made by those who came here before you; perhaps it's best to give the next generation a chance at having a city they're proud of.


Posted by Anna, a resident of Southgate
on Oct 25, 2007 at 12:59 pm

Carol is right. As long as city management is peopled by managers who've given us the storm drain fiasco, the utilities scandal, the website mess....and on and on, there is no sense throwing more money down the corrupt sewer at city hall.

The notion that we should approve spending millions of dollars on infrastructure while these miscreants are in charge to save on hypothetical construction costs is pure fatuity. First, as the storm drain experience shows, there is no capability either creating or managing construction to a budget at city hall. Why waste more bond money on a process that's obviously flawed. Second, more efficient operation if the city may well yield efficiencies that greatly alter the need for bonds to improve our infrastructure.

Let's get our house in order before wasting more money on the failed policies and persons running our city now.


Posted by the Real Anna, a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 25, 2007 at 1:35 pm

Anna,

Apparently, you're not informed of the many comunity studies, community polls, and committees that have determined a real need for invenstment in failing infrastructure.

Apparently, you appear unfazed by the FACT that waiting to repair this infrastructure will cost 10's of millions of dollars more.

How do you square that with your call for efficiency in government?


Posted by Duddie, a resident of Professorville
on Oct 25, 2007 at 1:54 pm

We've had this discusion before.

The Real Anna thinks we need infrastructure so badly that we should hand over lotsa money to the crooks and grifters currently in charge at city hall, on the questionable assumption that construction costs will rise as fast in the next few years as they have in the last few despite a slowing construction economy.

The other Anna thinks we should get rid of the crooks and grifters before spending hundreds of millions of dollars on infrastructure, arguing that the crooks and grifters would cost us alot more than construction inflation ever could.

I pretty much know which side I'm on.


Posted by Carol Mullen, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 25, 2007 at 1:56 pm

Something done badly is worse than something done over cost. I'd be willing to overpay for something done well, but I personally doubt that's within Benest's compass. The plans I've seen look worse than nothing. Another City Hall fiasco. If you don't have the sense to do it right, when will you have the sense to do it over?

You seem to have an undeserved sense of entitlement.
Many of us have lived here long enough to have paid our share of what remains of the city we chose to live in, Mike, in dollars that were worth a lot more than today's dollars. What was good, the street trees, parks, services performed by city personnel - those have been on the chopping block.

If you don't know what to do, it's not better to rush out and do something stupid.


Posted by vote watcher, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 25, 2007 at 2:45 pm

All this is called the status quo, everyone supports it although everyone talks against it. Even when we are trying to select new council members which is our chance of breaking out of the status quo we are very hesitant in doing so. After all this hoopla, Frank will stay, and we will elect council members who are an extension of the current council.


Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 26, 2007 at 8:54 am

"Many of us have lived here long enough to have paid our share of what remains of the city we chose to live in, Mike, in dollars that were worth a lot more than today's dollars. What was good, the street trees, parks, services performed by city personnel - those have been on the chopping block."

Ah, nostalgia. Carol, it's tiem to deal with NOW, and stop wishing away the fact that we live in a different time than 40 years ago. You have enjoyed the fruits of Prop 13; you are able to opt out of revenue bonds; give the new generation(s) here a chance to have a city that that deserve, instead of spiting them because of your distatse for the way our region has turned.


Posted by Carol Mullen, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 26, 2007 at 10:14 am

Mike, you have the same tone and the same first name as a former councilmember who now gets no bid contracts from the city every year. Has for many years. Platitudes, attitudes, no substance.

I certainly don't want to support you, or your choices. Or your idea of good government.


Posted by Fireman, a resident of another community
on Oct 26, 2007 at 10:58 am

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff]. There are people here working on finding the truth. Please....


Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 26, 2007 at 11:21 am

Carol, I'm afraid your imaginings, and your wish for a "return to the old days" are somewhat far fetched, and misplaced. Perhaps it's time to debate issues, and not personalities?

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff].


Posted by Fireman, a resident of another community
on Oct 26, 2007 at 11:50 am

Mike;
One must be able to see the issues to debate them. One must be able to see the truth and be willing to grasp it. Other wise I think Carol would be wasteing her time on you. I very much like to hear what Carol has to say. Carol you are not wasteing your time with me.
Carol how can we make a change? This forum is to small. We need a larger more powerful area or group to talk/listen?

State Attorney General ?


Posted by Carol Mullen, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 26, 2007 at 11:57 am

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.] Whether or not you have a financial stake in what you present as a worthy cause is an issue. Quite a large issue.

I wouldn't go so far as Duddle. I have no evidence of law-breaking, other than no bid contracts. Which may simply be highly unethical. There may be loopholes in the city's law which should be closed.

That's serious issue. The Weekly should take it on. It's also serious when employees leave, and then are retained as contractors. It's serious in Louisiana, it's serious in the Federal government, and it's serious in Palo Alto. It's more than costly. It undermines public confidence, and results in waste and mismanagement.


Posted by Naomi, a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 27, 2007 at 11:26 pm

Our lame duck City Council is not going to fire Frank Benest. It's too much of a hassle to hire a replacement. They'll leave that decision to a future City Council.


Posted by Carol Mullen, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 28, 2007 at 10:57 am

City Council can order disclosure of all details of plans being considered for bond issues. They can order that no more staff time can be spent on defending, say, the website.

Council could order Staff to present the impact of any large new project on the neighborhood schools that would have to take its children.

The Council could order a notice in the local papers of all street disruptions planned for the next six months. They could open discussions with Stanford about a joint project on rental housing for the new expansion of the Medical School.

Senior Department heads could run the City perfectly well if the City Manager were absent. After all, Frank Benest could leave abruptly, fall ill, etc. It would be easier for this Council to take decisive action than for a new Council to do so.


Posted by Fireman, a resident of another community
on Oct 28, 2007 at 1:08 pm


I would think/hope This council could see who created this HUGE mess.
And take care of it,not pass it on the the next group.
It is ok to be conned, just do not let the Connman climb the ladder. ie; Last Fire Chief?..One of Franks Buddies..


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