It all seems very strange. Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison has been suspended from her job without pay for three weeks. Council members were notified a couple of weeks ago by City Manager Frank Benest that there had been “an incident” and that Harrison will be suspended. Council members were given only a few details because, they were told, it was a “personnel” matter. Council members now say they cannot comment on the discipline, or tell me happened because it’s confidential. And some council members admitted that when told by Benest of the suspension, they didn’t ask questions why the discipline was imposed because it was a personnel issue.
Of course it’s a personnel matter, but that doesn’t mean the council and the public don’t have a right to know what happened to the person that is second in command in this city. In fact, when Benest is out of town, as has frequently happened, it is Harrison who is running this city. As the governing board in the city, the council is expected and entitled to know exactly what happened to a sometimes acting city manager and why the discipline was imposed.
The public and the press were not notified of the suspension. Someone sent an anonymous note to the Weekly, and that is the way the newspaper learned about it a couple days later.
I don’t buy the “personnel” excuse. Yes, public employees have some privacy, but when wrongdoings are involved, the public’s right to know trumps the privacy issue. I have been told that there is case law that says once a public employee has been officially investigated and discipline has occurred, the “personnel” protection no longer applies.
At the federal level, we are now going through an examination of why eight prosecutors were fired by the U.S. attorney general. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez originally said it was for “poor performance” but Congress is now learning it may have been for political reasons. “Personnel matter” doesn’t seem to be an excuse at the federal level.
In Harrison’s case, evidently there was a run-in with another employee at some point, and a complaint was lodged, but that doesn’t tell us much. What exactly happened and why did that lead to a three-week suspension without pay? Disagreements can frequently occur on a job, and they normally don’t result in suspensions, particularly suspensions without pay. (Two Palo Alto police officers, Kahn and Lee, were involved a couple of years ago in a case where a black man was harassed. They were suspended with pay before and during the trial.)
Were there complaints about Harrison? Or is she being treated unfairly? Did Benest overreact? Or is the three-week suspension an indication that there is more at stake here and that perhaps Harrison is on her way out?
Palo Alto residents should not have to speculate about what happened.. At the very least, I think Benest should have immediately released an announcement on the suspension, including the reasons for it, and be around to answer questions. The public has a right to know, particularly since Harrison has been running the city.
It’s all part of being an open government.