Diana Diamond: It's performance-review time for city manager
It's performance review time at Palo Alto City Hall for the four council-appointed officers, and the report card for City Manager Frank Benest is now being written.
It won't be all A's. Indeed, the time may have come when the council members may ask, "Should we really give our city manager a raise this year?"
Benest has been at Palo Alto's helm for seven years, and during this period Palo Alto has faced a number of difficult issues. Benest, himself, has enountered some terrible personal problems. Not only did his wife become ill and die, leaving him with two small children, but he then developed cancer and underwent a long recovery period. He had and still has the sympathy and support from the council and the community.
That's why judging his performance has been difficult for the council. If any of us had faced similar problems we may not have been able to handle all these traumas much less carry out the full-time job of running this city.
"He's tough," one council member observed.
Nevertheless, there comes a time when a city manager must be judged for his performance, particularly since he is now earning more than $200,000 a year.
During the first couple of years, Benest had enormous support from council members. However, the council now seems divided over how good a job he is doing. I've talked with several council members -- some say he's doing great, and point to how well the city has handled its budget problems while continuing to maintain most services. Others say he is not fully engaged with the city, doesn't keep on top of things and delegates too much to others.
Indeed, Benest has turned over much of the day-to-day handling of the city to Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison.
"Emily really runs the city," several said.
Benest has support from his management staff, who say he lets them run their departments without much interference but that he is there if they need him. Benest treats the staff well, and I am sure they were happy when he developed his 9/80 plan -- work nine 9-hour days and have every other Friday off. But that day off has made it difficult for the public to do its business at city hall, and even for council members to remember which Friday employees are at City Hall.
These are some of the issues surrounding his performance:
ï The Utilities Department scandal: Problems were uncovered in the department almost two years ago, and after a $300,000 investigation, the result was two top Utilities Department officials resigned plus 19 utilities employees were disciplined, including six who were fired or left. The two top officials -- John Ulrich who retired and Scott Bradshaw who resigned -- were neither fired nor disciplined but left with a clean slate. Benest then publicly covered up the reason for Ulrich leaving, saying the department head thought it was time to resign. Some say he should have caught the problems earlier and been more on top of the wrongdoings.
ï Benest has been known as the manager who focuses on big ideas rather than get mired in day-to-day operations. Looking back on the last seven years, I find three things he set out to do, one of which he accomplished successfully.
1) He came from his job of city manager at Brea, where redevelopment was a big thing. But when he tried to redevelop Edgewood Plaza he met with huge outcry from the residents, and his single attempt at redevelopment flopped badly.
2) Benest wanted to reorganize the Planning Department this spring by merging the Transportation Department with the Planning Department, and having Andy Coe become the new deputy director of planning. The proposal met with a great deal of council resistance, and a line-in-the-sand response by Benest. There were several examples of visible tension between Benest and the council, who finally rejected putting Coe in as deputy director. Benest didn't do the groundwork needed: He failed to get initial buy-in from community leaders, and presented a plan to the council not as a plan but as a fait accompli.
3) Benest's big win was getting a deal with Stanford on the Mayfield site, resulting in Stanford paying $2.5 million to develop four soccer fields on the corner of Page Mill Road and El Camino. The entire council backed him on this one, although negotiations with Stanford on this deal were not always smooth.
ï Library problems continue to plague the community. The library bond measure failed, and then Benest hired a new library director who recently resigned. The library problems still are there, and there is no new director in sight.
ï The council was blindsided two years ago by a Public Works Department proposal for a new Environmental Services Center -- it was being asked to make a decision on something it wasn't sure it even wanted. Benest should never have let the proposal get as far as it did without some council buy-in.
As to his personal style, the reaction to Benest varies. He is self confident, bright and forceful, some say, and somewhat deferential to the council. He also draws lines in the sand, or asks the council to "trust me."
I have heard from those trying to negotiate with the city, such as developers, that he has "a bullying style," and has abruptly walked out of meetings if things are not going his way.
"Frank is too much about Frank," one such person said.
So during the next two weeks, the council will, behind closed doors, evaluate the performance of their city manager. Awhile back, Benest got the council to agree that the four council-appointed officers would get automatic annual increases equal to the inflationary increase in the consumer price index.
So the council will have to decide whether to give him more than that, how much and whether he deserves a bonus.
I wish I were a fly on the wall for that discussion.
Diana Diamond is a longtime Palo Alto resident. Her e-mail is Diana@DianaDiamond.com. Her blog appears weekly at www.paloaltoonline.com.