Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison “engaged in a pattern of disrespectful and offensive behavior toward employees by publicly rebuking and berating them in front of others," City Manager Frank Benest summed up in an official memo March 6 notifying Harrison of her three-week suspension without pay.
She also engaged in “vindictive and retaliatory conduct toward employees you feel may have wronged you,” Benest said in the memo, released late Tuesday afternoon as part of an approximately 200-page packet of documents relating to the suspension.
The documents were released by the city attorney’s office in response to state Public Records Act requests by the Palo Alto Weekly and Palo Alto Daily News.
“I believe this problem should be put into the context of her (20) years of service to the Palo Alto government and the Palo Alto community,” City Manager Frank Benest told the Weekly Tuesday evening. “The discipline has occurred and as far as I am concerned the issue is over.
“Emily is a tremendous asset for us. She is our chief operating officer. I rely on her and I will continue to rely on her leadership,” he said.
Allegations against Harrison include that she behaved inappropriately with city employees dating back to the late 1990s, at least.
According to the documents, based on an extensive investigation, Harrison mocked the religion and gender of co-workers and repeatedly embarrassed and harassed other employees -- creating a pattern of out-of-bounds behavior.
Harrison once flicked water in the face of an employee, "engage(d) in loud and disruptive behaviors throughout the day" and taunted Republicans, fundamentalists and creationists, the documents state.
Benest said in the March 6 memo that Harrison “engaged in a pattern of disrespectful and insubordinate behavior toward me, which has negatively impacted the morale of the executive staff. It is reported that you have turned your back when I am speaking, rolled your eyes at what I am saying and you have been openly disrespectful.”
Benest said she ignored and engaged in rude behavior toward City Auditor Sharon Erickson after she submitted critical audits of departments under Harrison’s control and once screamed at City Attorney Gary Baum and accused him of betraying her.
"Your performance is and has been unacceptable and cannot continue," Benest said. Further offenses will be punished and possibly result in termination, he said.
The allegations paint a harsh portrait of the 20-year city employee who has a community reputation for intelligence, strong leadership and dedication to Palo Alto. She joined the City of Palo Alto as director of finance in 1987, and worked her way up to assistant city manager in 1997 -- under then-City Manager June Fleming.
The investigation into Harrison's behavior, which cost the city more than $23,000, stemmed from an Oct. 3, 2006, incident when Harrison "publicly humiliated and disrespected" a male employee.
Benest initiated the investigation, contrary to earlier reports.
Harrison has reportedly hired an attorney to represent her in filing an administrative appeal relating to the case. The attorney, Jeremy Pasternak of San Francisco, has not returned numerous calls from the Weekly, nor has Harrison.
The three-week suspension, which concluded April 10, cost Harrison about $10,000.
Benest reminded Harrison that she was “counseled regarding your behavior on numerous occasions,” dating back to Fleming’s tenure.
He said he advised her in 2001 that she needed to monitor herself relating to “the occasional caustic or critical comments directed at one staff member or another in public” at agenda-planning meetings.
But the behavior continued, despite a training session on March 4, 2004, on the city’s anti-harassment policy, building up to an August 2006 recommendation ”that you obtain counseling to address your behavior issues that affect the staff,” Benest said in the March 6 memo in which he first proposed a three-week suspension.
“Given that you had previously been counseled about your interpersonal skills, advised not to publicly criticize employees, and specifically instructed to avoid conduct that could be construed as retaliatory, your actions as set forth above make it painfully clear that you are either unwilling or unable to abide by the City’s rules,” Benest wrote. He said the suspension would be based “on the seriousness of your violations, the harm caused by your actions, the fact that you had previously been counseled regarding your behavior toward others, the high level position you hold as the Assistant City Manager, and the potential liability you have created for the City.”
In a meeting with Benest last March 8, Harrison said personal issues had been affecting her work but she had seen a counselor and taken other steps to deal with the problems, according to one document.
The documents include a March 12 letter from Harrison to Benest in which she directly apologizes to him for her actions.
“I have expressed to you my deep regret for events recounted in the disciplinary action. While there are numerous inaccuracies in the investigative report, that does not take away from my willingness to accept responsibility for my actions,” she wrote.
“I especially regret having shown you disrespect and discourtesy. I cannot change the past but as we committed to one another last year I will support you to the best of my ability going forward,” she said.
Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto said it was important to "keep perspective" when considering the allegations.
"We need to judge Assistant City Manager Harrison based on her 20 years of work at City Hall," Kishimoto said. "She's definitely, in the years I've been on the council, been an important member of the executive team and a major contributor.
“I'm willing to stand by the city manager's decision and stand by the assistant city manager and go from here," she said.
News of Harrison's suspension became public when the Weekly received an anonymous four-line letter mailed March 21 from San Francisco.
“You may want to ask why Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison has been suspended without pay for two weeks,” the letter states. “It could be due to treating an employee badly (hostile work environment). It wouldn’t be the first time."
Harrison confirmed the suspension to the Weekly and corrected the information to three weeks.