Editorial: Top-level City Hall turnover marks new eraA wave of top-level departures from Palo Alto city management is both an assertion of leadership by City Manager James Keene and an opportunity for potentially sweeping improvements in city operations.
The departure of nearly half of Palo Alto's top city administrators signals decisive leadership by City Manager James Keene and opens opportunities for change
It is believed to be the largest clustered departure of top leaders in the city's 116-year history.
Reasons are mixed, ranging from valued administrators retiring to others who are being persuaded or forced to leave.
Legitimate concerns about loss of "institutional memory" can be more than offset by having fresh perspectives — as well as having people in charge who are not defensive about past decisions or actions. The Weekly's Nov. 5 cover story detailed the departures of Fire Chief Nick Marinaro, City Attorney Gary Baum, Library Director Diane Jennings, Public Works Director Glenn Roberts and Human Resources Director Russ Carlsen. With the exception of Baum, who is appointed by the City Council, all the departees report directly to Keene.
In 2008, shortly after Keene's arrival, Police Chief Lynne Johnson and Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison left the city, each in the wake of controversies.
Keene says the most recent departures are mostly "just the reality of the Baby Boomer generation coming of age" — which also applies to dozens of lower-level departures.
In spite of the diplomatic talk and council resolutions of gratitude, it is no secret that Keene and the council were unhappy with the performance of several of these senior staff members. In particular, Public Works Director Roberts and City Attorney Baum have found themselves cross-wise the council on too many occasions. Whether their departures were technically voluntary or forced is now unimportant.
Most of the administrators have served the city for many years, and most are leaving with traditional honors and recognition. The loss of Jennings, who had served on the library staff since 1986 before she was named interim director in 2002 and director in 2006, will be particularly felt as the city embarks on its voter-approved $76 million library reconstruction program.
Keene now has an unprecedented opportunity to name a new generation of leaders for Palo Alto, bringing fresh energy and perspectives into a sometimes hide-bound City Hall hierarchy. He has said he believes in open communication and being responsive to citizens and an often hyper-critical community. Those are measurement points on which citizens should insist.
He and his new managers, and some key holdovers, face some of the most challenging issues in city history — issues that will affect the community for decades. The rebuilding of Stanford medical facilities and the fate of high-speed rail on the Peninsula are just two examples. The continuing economic crisis of managing city expenditures, increasing revenues and rebuilding community infrastructure is a long-term constant.
Forging new labor agreements and reforming retirement-benefit policies will be extraordinarily difficult — but absolutely necessary.
The appointments will be a test of Keene's judgment and ability to "walk the talk" of open communications, a large factor in his own hiring by the council in 2008.
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