But the perception of success has been marred. A recent firing of a probationary employee triggered a union protest and uncovered a complex but disturbing pocket of intrigue within the department, with new allegations of harassment and intimidation. One mid-level manager has been transferred and disciplined after an investigation upheld harassment allegations against him.
It is disheartening that these new allegations have surfaced, as the big impact will be on the morale and perceptions of the remaining 220-plus employees in the sprawling department, which has an annual budget as large as the rest of the city's.
The new case has badly shaken some employees, according to a number contacted by the Weekly, several of whom expressed fear of retaliation if quoted.
"Coming through the last scandals we were already down, and we were looking for somebody to pick us up," one employee told the Weekly. The current case "is where we see that there's no lifting up. It's almost the exact opposite."
The prior scandals stemmed from some department employees being discovered moonlighting in Menlo Park, using city equipment to do work on private property. The department underwent an intensive six-month investigation that cost the city $300,000. The probe, by a retired police captain, resulted directly or indirectly a change of top management and disciplining of 19 department employees. Two ultimately were terminated.
In the past year, current Utilities Director Valerie Fong was hired to head the rebuilt department.
The Weekly last Feb. 14 detailed the rebuilding progress in a cover story, but cautioned in an editorial that the city needed to monitor closely whether the changes instituted over the prior year by interim directors Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison and Administrative Services Director Carl Yeats would stick.
As any savvy manager of a large organization knows, changing the culture can be the hardest task of all.
In the case of the Utilities Department, according to documents obtained by the Weekly relating to the 2005 investigation, there were areas where employee harassment, intimidation and favoritism were strong elements of daily life within the department, especially at the Municipal Services Center in the baylands.
This was not a new phenomenon. The Weekly in 1994 reported extensively on an earlier "time-cards scandal" that led to felony prosecutions of two middle-managers. Peripheral charges of lax management and harassment of some workers apparently were never pursued or effectively dealt with.
"The question now is whether the reforms and changes will be enough to root out a longstanding culture of lax management and what some employees have called a prison-like hostile work environment," the Weekly observed editorially last February.
"Are the current reforms enough to change that deeply rooted culture? City officials believe they are. Only time will tell, but time could use some help," the editorial noted.
The Weekly suggested that the city auditor, who reports directly to the City Council, be assigned to do "an annual survey of the entire Utilities Department staff, at all levels, with identities of individuals carefully protected. Such a survey should measure the effectiveness of management changes made so far and monitor their staying power over at least several years, if not indefinitely.
"Only in this way can the public be truly assured that the conditions that enabled this situation to develop have been corrected, an important aspect of the public's right to know."
Many hardworking and dedicated utilities employees feel undermined and betrayed by the seeming inability of management to root out pockets of negative behavior. Both the public and the employees deserve better than to allow such conditions to continue.
In light of the new allegations we once again — with renewed urgency while the problem seems manageable — urge the city auditor and council to include monitoring as part of the auditor's work plan this year and at least for the next few years.