On the surface, Porter's firing was just another routine consequence of an employee/workplace pairing that didn't work. Porter's termination document -- which he provided to the Weekly -- says he was "recommended for release" for unsafe driving and "a performance matter related to meter reading."
But the city's biggest union is now alleging Porter is actually a victim of misconduct reaching to the top levels of the city's Utilities Department. If the union is correct, Porter's seemingly innocuous termination is the first public indication that the department -- recently revamped following years of scandal -- may still harbor harassment, retribution and favoritism.
The Service Employees International Union Local 521 (formerly 715), which represents 585 full-time city employees, alleges Porter was fired for testifying in a harassment case against a higher-ranking employee. It has no indisputable proof of this, but several unusual aspects of the termination, coupled with Porter's nearly three-year record with the city and indications he was threatened before his firing, have convinced union leaders, such as Phil Plymale.
The Weekly has acquired documents from Plymale and Porter supporting the union's allegations.
City leaders, however, maintain Porter was fired for poor driving and performance.
City Attorney Gary Baum said Utilities Director Valerie Fong told him she did not know Porter had testified in the harassment investigation when she fired him.
Human Resources Director Russ Carlsen said proper policies and protocols had been followed.
"There's nothing to look into," Carlsen told the Weekly Aug. 17.
Fong repeatedly declined the Weekly's requests to comment on Porter's termination, citing the need to keep personnel matters private.
The missing links leave outsiders speculating whether the firing could be just a blip in the otherwise smoothly functioning, 229-employee Utilities Department or proof that the massive restructuring may not have reformed the department's unhealthy culture.
The Utilities Department's troubles -- stretching back to the early 1990s -- exploded in 2004 when a utilities truck was spotted in Menlo Park. A subsequent probe revealed a dysfunctional department marked by timecard violations, unapproved use of city vehicles and tools, employees working non-city jobs -- both on and off the clock -- a hostile environment, sexual harassment, and threats of retribution.
Nineteen people, including nine managers, were disciplined or lost their jobs. Former Director John Ulrich resigned, citing personal reasons.
Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison, Administrative Services Director Carl Yeats and a team of managers and investigators worked for months to revive the department.
Fong, who previously led Alameda Power & Telecom, took over in October 2006. She pledged to be a "hands-on" manager, capable of keeping on top of department happenings while orchestrating gas contracts and securing water supplies -- upper-level tasks that had taken most of the previous director's time, employees have said.
City Manager Frank Benest said recently that Fong is doing "an excellent job."
But some employees dispute the rosy picture of their department.
"Coming through the last scandals we were already down, and we were looking for somebody to pick us up," one Utilities Department employee told the Weekly. "The example of Brandon (Porter) is where we see that there's no lifting up. It's almost the exact opposite."
"Behind the scenes, there's really a climate of paranoia around the third floor (of City Hall, the location of Utilities Department management) ... that seems to be coming from the top," the union's Plymale said.
His statement was echoed by several Utilities Department staff members who asked to remain anonymous. Employees are hunkering down, fearful their jobs may be next, several department employees said.
Porter, 36, believes the unsafe-driving allegation cited on his termination paper stems from a June 8 incident involving Fong in the City Hall garage.
Porter said he was driving down a ramp when he saw an SUV stopped on the left side of the throughway, while the driver chatted with someone. Fong's car was stopped behind the SUV, Porter said.
Driving his natural-gas city vehicle, he passed on the right of the two vehicles, Porter said.
Fong later asked if he had been the one "zipping" around the garage, Porter said. He maintains he was not speeding and did not even swerve too far to the right. Porter said he had not received any other comments about his driving since he began in 2004. One co-worker told the Weekly Porter "drives like a granny."
But Porter's driving history is not exactly clean. Porter had lost his license due to poor driving more than a decade ago. His current Department of Motor Vehicles record -- provided to the Weekly -- now shows only an accident in 2004 when Porter said he was rear-ended on Alma Street.
Porter said the "performance matter" listed as the second reason for his termination could have referred to a meeting with a supervisor early this year, when his accuracy reading gas meters dropped. Most meter readers had periods they were less accurate, Porter said. He attributed his errors to the city's purchase of new handheld computers.
Porter said he was never told the drop in accuracy could threaten his employment, however.
The timing of Porter's termination also raised eyebrows within the department.
Porter was hired as a part-time meter reader in the summer of 2004. He said his meter-reading contract had been extended several times, an indication the city was satisfied with his performance. He was offered a full-time position in March -- after the meeting with his supervisor over accuracy -- with a salary of about $55,000 per year.
The switch from hourly to full-time "permanent" status triggered a standard six-month probation period. As a probationary employee, though, Porter was "easy pickings," one Utilities Department employee said. In three months, after probation, he would have been protected as a union employee.
Prior to Porter's termination in June, another conflict had been unfolding in the Utilities Department -- a situation the union alleges is the actual reason Porter was fired.
In late May, Porter said he agreed to testify in a harassment investigation against a higher-ranking employee in the department, whom the Weekly will identify as "Keith."
The three-month harassment investigation was sparked by charges brought by "Pat," a pseudonym for the alleged victim who asked to remain anonymous.
Keith, a 20-year city employee, had been Pat's supervisor from 2003 to July 2006.
Pat had actually filed two complaints about Keith, one in 2005, which the city ruled had "no grounds," and a second in April, the outcome of which was mixed. The city determined that Keith had not broken any laws in the latter case but found him responsible for "hostile and offensive treatment in violation of other city policies."
Keith did not return numerous calls for comment. However, the Weekly has pieced together the following events surrounding the case based on documents and interviews.
Though the city resolved the first complaint in Keith's favor, Pat said she felt as though she were a target.
"Keith ... made a threatening phone call to me shortly after the (first) harassment complaint that made me feel there may be future retribution. This phone call was so upsetting it brought me to tears," Pat said in the April complaint.
In July 2006, Keith was moved from City Hall to the Municipal Services Center on East Bayshore Road, where he supervised field services and a portion of the Water-Gas-Wastewater Division, according to several sources. But the move didn't stop the harassment, Pat claimed.
"(Keith) continued to create a very hostile environment for me by constantly berating me to my co-workers. ... During this time, (Keith) would also make derogatory comments to me directly, such as: 'Nobody likes you,' 'You must be bipolar,' and 'You will never accomplish anything,'" Pat wrote in the April complaint.
Pat formally protested about Keith a second time after hearing Keith had reportedly "told one co-worker, 'I am going to get the ... group (I supervised) back, and then (Pat's) days will be numbered.'"
Porter told the Weekly that he had witnessed Keith trying to "drive Pat nuts" through harassment, micromanaging and threats for more than a year.
In fact, Porter said Keith had told him in 2004, "We have to do something about Pat."
Porter said he and Keith had previously been friends, but he still agreed to testify in the harassment investigation when he was asked to appear in late May.
"The union swore it would be confidential," Porter said. "I was a little nervous. ... I felt like I was doing the right thing."
Porter said he testified for about 30 minutes before a union representative and the investigator. No one in the investigation was put under oath, a union representative said.
Porter said he recounted the continual harassment of Pat he had witnessed. And when asked, he also told the investigator about a threat Keith allegedly had made toward him several months earlier. Keith had supposedly warned Porter -- via a mutual friend -- that Porter should distance himself from Pat. The mutual friend, who requested anonymity, has confirmed the incident.
As he was leaving the interview room, Porter said he knew his confidentiality was blown when a supervisor who was reportedly close to Keith watched him leave.
"At that point we knew (Keith) was going to know that Brandon (Porter) had testified," the union representative accompanying Porter, who asked to remain anonymous, said.
On June 28 <0x1024> within hours after Porter was fired -- Keith phoned the mutual friend.
"(Keith) said, 'He should have listened.' He should have stayed away from Pat," the friend told the Weekly. "He was implying to me (that Porter) was let go for that situation and not what was given on his dismissal papers."
The friend provided to the union a notarized statement documenting the exchange on July 24.
Porter and Plymale say they believe Keith somehow orchestrated Porter's termination through his friendship with an employee who works closely with Fong. The Weekly was unable to reach that employee or confirm the alleged friendship.
Usually, termination papers are signed by a direct supervisor, according to Plymale. Two levels of management stood between Fong and Porter, a department source said.
Via e-mail, Human Resources Director Carlsen said any authorized manager, including a department head, may sign termination papers.
But even if Keith hadn't triggered Porter's firing, and Fong had fired Porter for poor performance and driving rather than his testifying, the situation merits investigation, the union has said.
The union also asked for Porter's reinstatement, both at a July 17 meeting with the city's Risks and Benefits Manager Sandra Blanch and in an Aug. 2 letter to City Manager Benest and the City Council.
Although Blanch said she would get back to Plymale, he said he hasn't heard from her.
Meanwhile, the investigation of Keith concluded, according to a July 30 letter from Human Resources Director Carlsen to Pat that has been obtained by the Weekly.
The three-month, $4,038 investigation, conducted by outside investigator Chris Lozano, who is affiliated with J.H. Askins Company, Inc. in San Francisco, found the case did not violate workplace-harassment law, Carlsen wrote.
But the city agreed "hostile and offensive treatment in violation of other city policies" had occurred, the letter states.
The city policy referenced could have been the city's Merit Systems Rules and Regulations, which says that an employee can be disciplined for "offensive treatment of the public or other employee." The city's "Anti-Harassment Policy" states: "The City of Palo Alto opposes all forms of harassment on the job and in the workplace. ... The City is committed to providing a work environment in which employees are treated with respect and dignity and which is free from harassment."
"Appropriate steps are being taken in response to the results of the investigation," Carlsen wrote to Pat. Those actions have not been disclosed.
As of Sept. 1, Keith was moved to a different work group within the Water-Gas-Wastewater Division while retaining his same position and pay rate as a supervisor, according to Blanch. The move was "a lateral change," Blanch wrote in an e-mail to the Weekly.
The union plans to do everything in its power to restore Porter to his former job, Plymale said.
While continuing to pressure city leaders, including the council, it plans to file a complaint with the Public Employee Relations Board. The board is a "quasi-judicial" state agency that has the authority to order reinstatement of employees and the repayment of lost wages, if appropriate, according to Les Chisholm, division chief of the Public Employee Relations Board's Office of General Counsel.
Plymale said he doesn't know how long that process would take.
Porter said he's received advice to hire an attorney, but he said he doesn't have enough money and he doesn't want to fight.
"I'm just hoping the 'powers that be' can somehow reinstate me," Porter said. "I just want my job back."