Transforming City Hall | November 5, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - November 5, 2010

Transforming City Hall

A wave of retirements has left Palo Alto with gaping vacancies and huge opportunities

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto's Fire Chief Nick Marinaro became the first major City Hall domino to fall when he retired in late June, after 37 years of service.

This story contains 2447 words.

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Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by PA Resident, a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 5, 2010 at 9:23 am

Overall this is a well written and informative article but it could have gone further. For example the other cover story from this issue was about the City Manager's "bold" new initiative to increase customer service and reform the City's permitting process which is known by local planning wonks as the "Palo Alto Process." It would have been insightful to cross reference that story and ask the City Manager how this "Brain Drain" is going to affect his vision for the new permit process.

Keene says that the new vacancies, as well as the task of filling these vacancies, should slow things down in City Hall over the first half of 2011. Well that’s also supposed to be the roll out period for the new and improved permitting process. How will service levels be increased when the most knowledgeable and experienced workers are leaving in droves? Who will be providing this high quality customer service when all the veterans of the permitting game are retiring and leaving in droves for greener pastures? Temporary employees and consultants? How will the City recruit and hire high quality permanent replacements for these valued workers after thoroughly gutting city employee’s compensation?


Posted by Joseph, a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 5, 2010 at 10:13 am

Good article....


Posted by Carroll Harrington, a resident of Community Center
on Nov 5, 2010 at 11:21 am

Excellent reality check and overview!


Posted by PA-Needs-A-Good-House-Cleaning, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 5, 2010 at 12:16 pm

> Burt said the council intends to give Keene free reign to
> recruit the department heads.

The City Charter gives the City Council no room to involve itself with the running of the City government--outside of certain "policy" decisions. In fact, it's a misdemeanor for a City Council member to try to become involved. It's a shame that Burt doesn't know this .. it's also a shame the Weekly doesn't know this.

The underlying issue is that the City's pension system is incredibly lucrative. The City has been paying the non-public service personnel something like 2.7 x years-of-service when they retire. When the CalPERS COLA is added in, this provides people whose salaries are over $100K a very tidy nest egg.

For the individuals named in this article, the pension base will be between 100K and 150K, so the following are the pension payouts for these individuals in the future:

Pension 10-Year Total 20-Year Total 30-Year Total
$100,000 $1,116,872 $2,478,332 $4,137,944
$150,000 $1,675,307 $3,717,498 $6,206,916

This is a lot of money .. to be paid for not working. This is money that few people in the private sector will see in their pension plans. Moreover, people in the 50's are young enough to start another career, or move to another municipality and possibly into another Director-level slot for 10-15 more years.

Given these financial inducements--there is little reason to stay in Palo Alto when they can make more money in retirement than they made working.

Without people's understanding how much money is involved in the pension giveaways, articles like this one are not very helpful in understanding why things always seem to be in one kind of a crisis, or another, at 250 Hamilton.


Posted by Garry Wyndham, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 5, 2010 at 12:21 pm

A really good article.

But are we really surprised that people are retiring in large numbers? We've made it so financially attractive to retire at 55 (2.7% pension for each year of service) that it would be astonishing if they chose to stay.


Posted by Mr. Clean, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 5, 2010 at 12:53 pm

Yes, Keene is clearly cleaning house.

New people with a new perspective are sorely needed to change City Hall culture.

Some departments need a thorough scubbing from top to bottom after the last several years of scandals and foul-ups.


Posted by More change needed, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 5, 2010 at 1:16 pm

We need to go further. There are many qualified managers that could do this job at the posted salary amounts without having the significant retirement incentive. We should move more towards self contribution with a % match much like many non-government employers provide. When you retire you are off the books.

These departures will continue as public outrage over exorbitant retirement benefits raises the perceived risk that something might be taken away.


Posted by Eric, a resident of Green Acres
on Nov 5, 2010 at 1:33 pm

Many of you see the retirements of the City's Management staff as a good thing. To a certain extend I agree with you, however, the City is loosing much of it's institutional memory. Steve Emslie will be the only one left with any kind of longevity.


Posted by Ano Nymous, a resident of another community
on Nov 5, 2010 at 1:37 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


Posted by Elena, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 5, 2010 at 1:39 pm

I laugh when I see "brain drain" and "Palo Alto leadership" epitheths here. I'd call these departurers "Palo Alto opportunities" to adjust its budegt to reality. According to City of PA 2009 report (pubicly available here Web Link
salary of the departed Glen Roberts was $170,845 and Diane Jennings, Library Director, was $179,902. This is a opportunity for the city fo Palo Alto to bring in young talent at half the cost. There are many graduates looking for a job these days, after all what is so complicated in Library Director job that a recent college graduate with good time management and people skills can't do? It is time Palo Alto comes up with more creative ways of recruiting - for example, bring in young people who do not demand big $$$ salaries. There should be an open contest for these jobs.


Posted by neighbor, a resident of another community
on Nov 5, 2010 at 1:43 pm

Right...let's get some young folks with no experience whatsoever to run the city.

Palo Alto, be care what you wish for.

Also...take a look at your own paychecks. What does it cost for a family to live in PA?


Posted by Fiscal conservative, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 5, 2010 at 1:48 pm

"The new forecast, which contains more modest salary increases" - why is PA giving ANY salary increases ????


Posted by Elena, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 5, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Neighbor, your advice to "take a look at your own paychecks" is completely irrelevant unless you want to build a communist society where everyone's paycheck is the same.
I would take a bright young man or woman without experience but with good common sense and desire to change over an incumbent bureaucrat any day! Or a good admin.
You must be one of those overpaid government workers who want to protect the jobs, salaries and benefits at any cost.


Posted by Mr. Clean, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 5, 2010 at 2:29 pm

Eric,

That "institutional memory" is of a laundry list of scandals and foul-ups over just the last several years involving the City Manger's Office, the Police Department, the Public Works Department, the Utilities Department, the Administrative Services Department, the City Attorrney's Office and on and on.

Many big egos have come crashing down in a big "thud" as a result. Lots of impromptu "career" changes too. A few, like the former Administrative Services Director, got out of Dodge just in time before the **** hit the fan.

Time to finish the thorough housecleaning the Keene with the support of the Mayor and City Council have underway right now. Scour out the palce from the first to the seventh floor. Cut costs too.


Posted by Deep Throat, a resident of another community
on Nov 5, 2010 at 3:09 pm

Fire Chief Nick Marinaro was not the "first major City Hall domino to fall".

Police Chief Lynne Johnson retired shortly after Jim Keene became City Manager: Web Link

The graphic accomanying the article could have shown Johnson's photo with an "X" instead of showing Dennis Burns.

Community Services Director Greg Betts and Planning Director Curtis Williams were both Interim Directors when Keene was hired, but did not become actual Department Directors until appointed by Keene and confirmed by the City Council.

The only department heads remaining who were appointed to their positions by former City Manager Frank Benest and confirmed by the City Council are Lalo Perez and Valerie Fong.


Posted by Anon, a resident of another community
on Nov 5, 2010 at 3:24 pm

So many opinions, but how many of you actually have any idea what you are talking about? How are you able to get a flavor of the festering culture you always speak of unless you work there?

General statement to, well most of the posters on this forum: You expect so much more than you are willing to give. Put in your resume for any one of the vacant positions, stating that you are willing to only earn $60k with no benefits. Go ahead. Put your money, your livlihood, your family, your 3 million dollar home where your mouth is. Obviously there are no skilled positions at City Hall, so you should be able to easily handle any of the vacancies. No? Not willing to actually walk the walk?

Didn't think so.


Posted by Mr. Clean, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 5, 2010 at 3:27 pm

Deep Throat,

You have provided accurate information. Whatever the thin veil thrown round it, what has been going on now for a couple of years is plainly a major house-cleaning. Emily Harrison, Lynne Johnson, Glen Roberts, Gary Baum, Carl Yeats, and others are all out the door. Russ Carlsen will gone by the end of the year. These people were all running amok at 250 Hamilton Avenue jockeying with each other for power and glory just a few years ago.

Some of them left in the throes of a scandal or just afterward. That list includes Harrison, Johnson, Roberts, and Baum. Yeats and Carlsen were or have been careful not to leave their fingerprints on the back door knob (so to speak) for the sherrif to collect as evidence. Yeats was the craftier of the two, having talked the gullible Council into approving the 2.7% retirmement formula just the year before he (conveniently) retired himself. He still collect checks for "consulting" with the City of Palo Alto. Slick!


Posted by Jake, a resident of another community
on Nov 5, 2010 at 3:36 pm

"anon"

Thank you for your comments, it's getting a little old listening to certain people make statements of FACT as to what people do or don't do, how easy it is, "I would do that for $100,000 a year" etc.
The City of Palo Alto had position after position open or openings happening all the time until the last few years.
I see very few if any residents of Palo Alto applying for or working for the City of Palo Alto.
If it's such a great place with such great money and benefits then I'm guessing we will see some of these people who post here working for the City soon to take advantage of all the money and perks.


Posted by realist, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 5, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Do you really think a new grad for half the price as Library Chief could cut the mustard? The Friends of the Library would eat her for breakfast.


Posted by PA-Needs-A-Good-House-Cleaning, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 5, 2010 at 4:51 pm

> The Friends of the Library would eat her for breakfast.

This group has been one of the most pernicious to library management. While they have generated a small amount of money over the years, their contributions do not come close the the total amount wasted on the library sites in this town--and their vision of the future is myopic at best. Hopefully any new library managers will be supported by the City Manager to do his/her job without having to supplicate himself/herself before this bunch of Luddites.

With libraries moving onto the Internet, and marvelous readers now on sale at just about every location conceivable--the idea that a city needs brick-n-mortar libraries is now history. It is difficult to believe that library use will not tail off in the coming years--leaving any new library Director with a new set of problems. Rather than having to kiss various body parts of this (at time almost vicious) buck of people, he/she will be having to come up with plans to justify the library's existence.

As to Jennings leaving at this time. It's clear that librarians are not particularly good administrators of large programs. (Remember a former librarian who was Palo Alto City Manager). So, having multiple managers of any large program is a technique that is used in the private sector. One manager for the beginning of a large project. A "middle manager" and an "clean up" manager. Governments don't seem to understand that as much as the private sector does. It's possible that the City Manager was able to recognize the need for a "project-oriented" manager in the library, and used this opportunity to get one.


Posted by Questioning, a resident of another community
on Nov 5, 2010 at 5:53 pm

The letter in the latest edition of the Palo Alto Weekly from Ronna Devencenzi, former President of the California Avenue Area Development Association (CAADA), castigating City of Palo Alto top brass is devastatingly on target.

Weak top leadership with no vision, instead a focus on pushing the blame downhill to line staff when anything goes wrong. A cover your behind above all else mentality. Crafty, carefully scripted frame-up jobs in the guise of internal investigative reports, each designed to shift the blame away from the brass.

Endless spin and snow jobs. Scant honesty, little integrity, zero courage. No accountability for anything that goes wrong. Responsibility? Nobody's home in the top echelon.

That has been the culture of Palo Alto City Hall senior management for years. When will it all end?


Posted by Tim, a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 5, 2010 at 6:29 pm

I wonder if City Manager Keene would work for half his $227K salary.
If not, hire one of those right out of college folks who will.
You people are so silly.


Posted by Jane, a resident of University South
on Nov 5, 2010 at 9:17 pm

What you fail to point out is that in the immediately preceding few years, we also lost many managers, so it's an even greater brain drain than you point out. For example, Greg Betts, the current Community Services Director is just about the only one left of all of the heads of the different subdivisions. They've all left recently, and along with them, the memory and the gained experience.


Posted by Tim, a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 6, 2010 at 2:29 am

If I was just finishing college, let me think if I would want to work for Palo Alto...

Google Job: Average salary in my field $80,000. A lot of possibility for upward mobility/career development, free shuttle transportation to/from work, show up/leave when I want, free food all day, free gym, rock climbing at work, swimming at work, volleyball at work, on-site doctor, on-site dentist, on-site car wash, on-site oil change for my car, and when my back hurts I just get a massage right in my work building...

City of Palo Alto Job: Average salary in my field $90,000. Good health benefits and retirement.


Hmmm, I think I'll go for the Google job thank you.


Posted by Tim, a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 6, 2010 at 8:19 am

Tim (Downtown North),

You forgot free daycare, free dry cleaning.


Posted by anon, a resident of another community
on Nov 6, 2010 at 12:40 pm

The Tim's are right on target. But, that isn't what this thread is supposed to be about. Seems every thread whittles down to it at some point, but city salaries and benefits are not the issue here. The issue here is that city hall is draining. There are some challenges ahead for the people left behind. There is also great opportunity for the organization to shift to a leaner more effecient one. Get some new blood that will look at the way things have always been done and find better ways to do them.

That being said, I still haven't heard any of the know-it-alls saying they would apply for half the wages and none of the benefits as they always claim city workers should get. Still waiting...


Posted by Tim, a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 6, 2010 at 1:00 pm

To anon,

The problem is that if these young people are not pay a good salary (over $100K) and good benefits, they will get their "feet wet" on Palo Alto's dime and move on to a better city or company.
This was proven many times in the police dept, until they give them a 30% raise a few years back.


Posted by neighbor, a resident of another community
on Nov 6, 2010 at 2:35 pm

Elena and all the other folks alarmed about PA salaries -- note that in health care and all benefits have been included in the totals. Salaries, like other things in our economy, are market driven. Do you think that you can get city leadership for 30k/year? Only if you outsource all city management to India. There's a thought for a TV series or movie.

You comment.... "Neighbor, your advice to "take a look at your own paychecks" is completely irrelevant unless you want to build a communist society where everyone's paycheck is the same...." ARE YOU FOR REAL? No one said everyone's check should be the same. God Forbid!

Elena -- what's a fair salary that YOU would accept to manage/supervise 12-400 people, work 40-60 hrs/week including citizen "meetings" and complaints, do dept./functional budgeting and be accountable for the department decisions....and be beholden to the Palo Alto Process... Oh yes, and pay Peninsula cost of living, housing costs/rents, and have a family?

Betcha it's 100+K and change.


Posted by Fran, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 6, 2010 at 10:39 pm

<The problem is that if these young people are not pay a good salary (over $100K) and good benefits, they will get their "feet wet" on Palo Alto's dime and move on to a better city or company.

So True.


Posted by Elena, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 7, 2010 at 9:23 am

RE " what's a fair salary that YOU would accept to manage/supervise 12-400 people, work 40-60 hrs/week" - I'd it for $70K with all the benefits it comes with. And there are many absolutely awesome admins who are very organized, great planners and have excellent communication skills. In the industry they make $60-$70K without the retirement benefits.
Google jobs are available for very few very select graduates, but there are thousands college grads who could the job. Do not overestimate the challenges of the job, let's say of a Library Director. Big deal, really!


Posted by Sameera, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Nov 7, 2010 at 9:26 am

<The problem is that if these young people are not pay a good salary (over $100K) and good benefits, they will get their "feet wet" on Palo Alto's dime and move on to a better city or company>
True if you hire really good ones, but hire average and they will stay. They will be happy they have a job.


Posted by PA-Needs-A-Good-House-Cleaning, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 7, 2010 at 10:14 am

Government is different from private sector organizations, as they are required to provide services to the public in general, rather than to paying customers, and are not intended to "make a profit". Additionally, government entities are not intended to "go out of business" -- -- "failure is not an option".

This means that those in charge must manage governmental organizations so that there are no "irreplaceable” individuals, and that the organization do not become so structured that they cannot easily adopt to changes in the economic environment, or in the political environment, that surround these organizations.

If there is a "brain drain" at City Hall a year after a new City Manager is appointed, what are we to make of this? Is it a problem, or simply a long overdue house cleaning? But more to the point, why should we, as residents, be concerned because Department heads “move on”, remembering that any organization that becomes so intractable that “things happen” only because a small number of senior people yield enough power, or organizational knowledge, to see projects, or processes, drawn to complete speaks volumes about the failures of that organization, rather than the prowess of those who manage to get “City Hall” to finally do its job.

Lest we forget, it is the job of the City Manager not only to “manage” people, but also the process. It is the job of the City Manager to define not only processes, but also to construct a framework of checks-and-balances, internal reporting/evaluation, so that the City Manager can come to understand where the bottlenecks in the “process flow” can be found, who his/her strong managers are, and who his/her weak managers are. It is the City Manager’s job to create frameworks so that the so-called “institutional history” of the City does not resident only in the minds of a few key individuals. It is the City Manager’s job of the City Manager to insure that these sorts of problems are identified, and corrected as quickly as possible.

Of course, the City Council has a responsibility, albeit limited, based on the Strong City Manager/Week City Council form of government here in Palo Alto, to oversee, the City Manager. The City Council does have the power to review the City Manager as frequently as necessary, and as he is an "at will" employee, to replace the City Manager when deemed appropriate. And, the residents have the right to recall the City Council at any time, if it becomes clear that the City Council is not exercising its powers appropriately.

Unfortunately, things have become out-of-kilter in Palo Alto. None of the checks-and-balance mechanisms have been applied in an inappropriate/timely fashion in the past, leaving us with a very unproductive/unresponsive city government.

If this City Manager is worth his salary, he will make wiser choices for the Department head replacements that he will be selecting than have been made by his predecessors. He would be well advised to select from outside the City staff, if at all possible. The idea that Department heads have worked in the Palo Alto City government for 30+ years is further evidence of why things are so out-of-kilter here. Given the practices in the US military, and the private sector, in general, tenures of three-five years seems to be typical. City government might require a slightly longer tenure, or perhaps five-six years, but certainly suggesting that Department heads should have 15-20 years of “on-the-job” training in order to function successfully should be seen as one of the root problems with our current problems at City Hall.

Hopefully this “brain drain” will be seen as a turning point in Palo Alto government leading to better staff decisions and more effective use of the money intended to provide public services and infrastructure.


Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 7, 2010 at 2:57 pm

Less hiring, more service sharing:

Web Link


Posted by Clean Sweep Needed, a resident of another community
on Nov 8, 2010 at 8:41 am

Let's finish the clean up at City Hall.

Almost all the department heads and deputy department heads of only a few years ago are now gone. Many left under a cloud. Now is the time to complete the sweep out.

End all the scandals once and for all. Bring good, efficient government to Palo Alto.


Posted by who cares, a resident of Triple El
on Nov 8, 2010 at 7:10 pm

Good luck and best wishes to employees who leave this terribly dysfunctional workplace. Residents, city management, and city council make sure that employees understand that they are not welcome and are a burden and liability on the city's future. City Manager Keene, whose "the glass is always half empty" motto has driven both management and city workers to resign or retire in mass numbers. I can only hope that residents and city management will be satisfied with contract and temp employees who have no allegiance to the city or petty whims of city council requests. Good luck, I hope you get what you want.


Posted by PA-Needs-A-Good-House-Cleaning, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 10, 2010 at 2:19 pm

> Good luck and best wishes to employees who leave this
> terribly dysfunctional workplace.

Time and again, we, the residents and taxpayers, are confronted with evidence that the City of Palo Alto's workplace is actually "dysfunctional", based on comments on blogs (like this one), and from little "windows" into City Hall--like the Utilities Probe and the suspension of the City's Assistant City Manager.

But what to do about it? The elected City Council seems totally dedicated to special interests, or indifferent to changing the status quo, or just unqualified to understand the situation.

Without periodic audits, we (the residents and taxpayers) are held hostage to a system that seems more dedicated to "serving itself" rather than the public at large. The current Charter limits what the City Council can do, but the Charter could be changed--if there were enough political will to put the City on a better foundation. Unfortunately, there are not very many leaders here in Palo Alto who are not simply spokespersons for one special interest group, or another.

The growing financial crisis here in the US, and CA, offer a way out, as it becomes clear that the cost of "business as usual" is now unsustainable. Sharing/merging municipal services seems to be a "doable" first step in dealing with the cost issues. However, it will take a sea-change in the approach to management of municipal workers to deal with this issue of "dysfunctionality". It's a shame that we don't have any hard evidence as to what the truth really is about what the City of Palo Alto workplace is really like.



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