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.
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.
This story contains 1357 words.
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