Not only has it taken more than six months for the city to begin its search for a new Utilities Director for Palo Alto, but City Manager Frank Benest already has warned the City Council that the new hire is going to be an expensive proposition for the city.
Benest recently told the council that because of all the problems the Utilities Department has experienced, the new person will be hard to find and expensive to get.
The city manager hinted that the new utilities director might even have to be offered a house as part of the deal to lure him to Palo Alto. What truly amazed me was the council was told this as the search by a private headhunting firm has just started. There’s nary a candidate in mind to fill the slot, but already the council was told that the person is going to be pricey and may need a house. We’re nowhere near the offer-counteroffer stage.
That to me is a council set-up. And it’s almost a guarantee that whoever is offered the job will demand a house, because Benest, at a public meeting, said these could be the terms.
Granted the department has had problems. The city spent $300,000 investigating allegations of sexual harassment, witness intimidation, false overtime and moonlighting. Six utility department employees quit or were fired and 13 more were disciplined. And there also were the mysterious “resignations” of Utilities Director John Ulrich and his deputy.
The Palo Alto Weekly filed suit to force the city to reveal how it spent $300,000, and unless the judge’s decision is appealed, the city will now have to reveal what these workers did to get themselves in such trouble.
Ulrich announced in October 2005 that he was departing, but the search was not officially begun until recently. Why? Because Benest wanted to decide whether the utilities department should be reorganized, or even split in two, and said that decision was needed before the job could be advertised.
That makes sense, but it doesn’t make sense for the city to have taken nearly five months to decide not to split the department. It seems to me decision-makers could have discussed the pros and cons of reorganizing at a day-long retreat, and then get on with the search.
Since Ulrich’s departure, Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison and Director of Administrative Services Carl Yeats have been running the utilities department together, as well as doing their own jobs, which is a big load, especially since it will probably be months before a person is finally hired.
At Benest’s recommendation, both Yeats and Harrison received a 9 percent (yes, nine) salary increase at the June 12 council meeting, in appreciation for their extra efforts and also to boost their salaries to put them on a par with other department heads (meaning the new utilities director). Ulrich was getting $187,000 when he left. Harrison was making $165,000, and now got a $15,000 boost to bring her up to $180,000, while Yeats also received a $15,000 increase, placing him at the $176,000 level. As an aside, I am not sure why the new person has to get $187,000, since Ulrich worked his way up to that number.
By the way, anytime upper management staff salaries go up, that’s almost a guarantee that Benest will suggest that his salary needs to be raised, to assure that the most highly paid person in the city continues to receive the highest pay.