Palo Alto looks for flexibility in filling vacancies

City Manager James Keene proposes changing city's rules for transferring employees between departments, hiring temporary help

Faced with a leaner staff and a growing workload, Palo Alto City Manager James Keene wants to relax the city's rules for hiring temporary employees and shifting workers from one position to another.

Keene said Tuesday night (Dec. 14) that the city's policies for transferring employees are too bureaucratic and inefficient and asked for more flexibility in managing the diminished workforce in City Hall. Under the existing policy, the City Council has to approve every change in the city's table of organization, a list of positions that gets printed in the annual budget. Keene proposed changing this policy.

The table has fluctuated in the past two years, as the council reduced worker benefits, prompting dozens of employees to retire. Recent budget woes have also prompted layoffs in City Hall, where about 40 full-time positions were eliminated in the past year.

Keene told the council's Policy and Services Committee that the current policy is not a good use of either the council's or the employees' time and said management needs to have "more flexibility than we have now."

"I think we're in an environment where the old hierarchical rules of bureaucracy are just standing in the way of being flexible and being responsive," Keene told the committee.

Keene pointed specifically to the difficulties of finding replacements for the city's managers and professionals, many of whom have retired over the past year. He said that in the existing system, when a "management specialist" retires, the city cannot assign this position's duties to another employee unless that employee agrees to change his or her job title.

Keene also said the current system makes it difficult for current employees to voluntarily assume more responsibilities and advance within the organization. As a result, it makes the task of recruiting workers into the public sector more daunting.

Keene did not propose any specific changes Tuesday, but said he wants to continue the discussion in the coming months. Human Resources Director Russ Carlsen wrote in a memo that the changes under consideration are "fairly minimal" and would help the city "better address staffing challenges."

"The city's ability (to) quickly address critical staffing needs and make the best staffing decisions is currently limited by these constraints, which may result in a lack of responsiveness or unnecessary inefficiencies, both of which are incongruent with our organizational values and mission," the memo stated.

Committee members agreed that Keene's proposed reforms should be pursued, but Nick Fraisch, a negotiator for the Service Employee International Union, Local 521, voiced some concerns about the proposals. Palo Alto residents elect the council, not city management, to make the decisions about personnel levels at various departments, he said. The council, by authorizing each position, sends a message about its priorities to the community.

"While I respect Jim and Russ, I didn't elect Jim to make decisions on whether 12 FTE's (full-time-equivalent positions) in the parks should be a priority," Fraisch told the committee. "I elected you to make that decision."

Councilwoman Gail Price said she supports Keene's effort, but only as long as the process remains transparent. One of the benefits of having a chart of positions listed in the budget is that it enables citizens to better understand how the city allocates its staff. She agreed with Keene that the city should strive to give its workers more opportunities for advancement within the organization.

"There has to be an understanding that this is for the well-being of the organization and it recognizes the value of employees and the opportunities for employees," Price said.

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Posted by Bill
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 15, 2010 at 10:51 am

> growing workload

We hear this from City Hall year-after-year, but there is rarely any documentation to back up the claims. Moreover, the City has rarely shown any evidence of understanding how to apply its Information Technology resources to reduce the need for increasing its personnel.

Keene could help himself, and us, out by publishing some sort of list that defines the "workload" of the city's employees. In the case of reports that need to be generated, in addition to the report name, and source demanding the report be generated, how many hours the report takes to generate, and if it is done by hand, or via computer, would be available to see how much room exists for further automation of this portion of the workload.

At the moment, what goes on at City Hall is very murky. Some things are visible (like City Manager's Reports), but other aspects of staff loading is not so visible.

Like this comment
Posted by Jon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 15, 2010 at 11:33 am

Commercial organizations use "benchmarking" to compare themselves to other organizations to see if they're using employees intelligently. Palo Alto seems to have refrained from a lot of this perhaps because comparison with nearby cities would show that in many cases there could be rather less "workload"....

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Posted by stretch
a resident of another community
on Dec 15, 2010 at 11:49 am

Bill would like the City to generate lists of the extra work, in great detail, thus creating even more of a workload! It's just that kind of thinking and then the requirements of all the agencies the City reports to, such as the DOT and all the water overseers, that makes for more paperwork. Then there are the failing infrastructures - old pipes, valves, sub-stations, that require replacement and up-grading. Just like an old house that needs more to keep it liveable, the City has to scramble to keep the City running, and do all the paperwork to stay in compliance at the same time.

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Posted by Bill
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 15, 2010 at 12:43 pm

> thus creating even more of a workload!

This would be a one-time activity to provide a framework for the City Manager to make a case for reorganizing, rethinking, and maybe even "sunsetting" unnecessary paper work. From time-to-time we hear about "State mandates" for various reports. Well, having a list of these reports would help us all understand if these reporting activities are helpful, or not. If all Cities were to do the same sort of exercise, it would be easy to see if the workloads on all Cities are about the same, or if some have managed to "make work" in order to justify high head counts (a favorite trick of labor unions).

This suggestion is simply a first step in creating a management framework for describing the workload of City staff to the world.

Like this comment
Posted by Ronna Devincenzi
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 15, 2010 at 12:55 pm

It's comical to see the term "Management Specialist." When things go wrong in Palo Alto, City Hall just blames volunteers, as if volunteers had the clout & ability to be in charge of major projects.

Like this comment
Posted by flexibilityincpa?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 15, 2010 at 1:43 pm

Whenever the City talks about making things more "flexible" - watch out. Chances are, the Attorney's office will get wind of it and just add more "process." The additional process will require more staff. It's like digging ditches and then filling them up again.

Like this comment
Posted by George
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Dec 15, 2010 at 1:52 pm

Does Nick Fraisch, SEIU negotiator, live in PA and hence can vote for Council members? Live and learn.

The City Manager needs as much flexibility as possible to correct the sad, prior imposed restrictions on his/her ability to manage our City Government. Mr. Keene was hired to manage, not to tip toe through a bureaucratic mine field.

We have to trust his judgment, or do we want everyone to nit pick and criticize his recommendations while they are not responsible for his operation? If he errs, the Council should deal with it, not the the residents.

Like this comment
Posted by Don't Do It !
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 15, 2010 at 2:48 pm

There's a reason for process, civil service requirements, and merit rules. History tells us of Timpany Hall and Boss Tweed (in Keene's case it will need to be Boss "pinstripes"). Think about nepotism, favoritism, and all that acompanies an unconstrained process.

Then look at what has already begun in the Palo Alto City Manager's office. Two new "temporary" contract employees hired to work on High Speed Rail, when there is already a Deputy City Manager assigned to that function. Hourly rates for them are at levels above what Department Heads make. The best part of the most recent hire is that it is someone who used to work under Keene in Berkeley and was a close personal "friend".

Sure, let's loosen up the process. What could posibly go wrong there....?

Like this comment
Posted by who cares
a resident of Triple El
on Dec 15, 2010 at 4:36 pm

Always thought it was funny that Keene called SCAB workers "management specialists" as if only they could perform work assigned to regular FTE employees. Now he wants to continue his charade by hiring his buddies who have lost their jobs in Berkley. Instead of hiring FTE employees who can be held accountable, he wants temporary employees who can leave when requested and mistakes they have made quickly buried. Keene, in addition, wants FTE employees who have not joined the exodus from the city to assume duties without additional pay or job recognition. I guess in Keene's perfect world everybody would do extra work and give him the credit. As for SEIU, well, good riddance to a dying union. If the city employees have any sense of self respect they will dump management friendly SEIU and create a city employee union that has some backbone.

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