Palo Alto Weekly

News - December 17, 2010

Palo Alto looks for flexibility in staffing

City Manager James Keene proposes changing city's rules for hiring temporary help

by Gennady Sheyner

Faced with a leaner staff and a growing workload, Palo Alto City Manager James Keene wants to relax the city's rules for hiring temporary employees and shifting workers from one position to another.

Keene said Tuesday night that the city's policies for transferring employees are too bureaucratic and inefficient and asked for more flexibility in managing the diminished workforce in City Hall. Under the existing policy, the City Council has to approve every change in the city's table of organization, a list of positions in the annual budget. Keene proposed changing this policy.

The table has fluctuated in the past two years, as the council reduced worker benefits, prompting dozens of employees to retire. Recent budget woes have also prompted layoffs in City Hall, where about 40 full-time positions were eliminated in the past year.

Keene told the council's Policy and Services Committee that the current policy is not a good use of either the council's or the employees' time and said management needs to have "more flexibility than we have now."

"I think we're in an environment where the old hierarchical rules of bureaucracy are just standing in the way of being flexible and being responsive," Keene told the committee.

Keene pointed specifically to the difficulties of finding replacements for the city's managers and professionals, many of whom have retired over the past year. He said that in the existing system, when a "management specialist" retires, the city cannot assign this position's duties to another employee unless that employee agrees to change his or her job title.

Keene also said the current system makes it difficult for current employees to voluntarily assume more responsibilities and advance within the organization. As a result, it makes the task of recruiting workers into the public sector more daunting.

Keene did not propose any specific changes Tuesday but said he wants to continue the discussion in the coming months. Human Resources Director Russ Carlsen wrote in a memo that the changes under consideration are "fairly minimal" and would help the city "better address staffing challenges."

"The city's ability (to) quickly address critical staffing needs and make the best staffing decisions is currently limited by these constraints, which may result in a lack of responsiveness or unnecessary inefficiencies, both of which are incongruent with our organizational values and mission," the memo stated.

Committee members agreed that Keene's proposed reforms should be pursued, but Nick Fraisch, a negotiator for the Service Employees International Union, Local 521, voiced some concerns. Palo Alto residents elect the council, not city management, to make the decisions about personnel levels at various departments, he said. The council, by authorizing each position, sends a message about its priorities to the community.

"While I respect Jim and Russ, I didn't elect Jim to make decisions on whether 12 FTEs (full-time-equivalent positions) in the parks should be a priority," Fraisch told the committee. "I elected you to make that decision."

Councilwoman Gail Price said she supports Keene's effort but only as long as the process remains transparent. One of the benefits of having a chart of positions listed in the budget is that it enables citizens to better understand how the city allocates its staff. She agreed with Keene that the city should strive to give its workers more opportunities for advancement within the organization.

"There has to be an understanding that this is for the well-being of the organization and it recognizes the value of employees and the opportunities for employees," Price said.

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