Ned Himmel, Rich Mallonee and Rob Braulik have little in common when it comes to professional responsibilities, but one wouldn't know it from looking at their job titles.
Himmel took over as the city's interim library director in October, replacing retired Director Diane Jennings. Mallonee heads the city's Office of Emergency Services, while Braulik helps the City Council keep up with California's proposed high-speed rail project. But the three share one characteristic; they are among the dozens of city employees whose official title is "management specialist" -- a nebulous designation that has become increasingly common at City Hall over the past three years.
Records from the Administrative Services Department show that in 2010, 73 employees carried the "management specialist" designation -- up from 45 in 2007. The list includes an attorney, a Fire Department deputy chief, planning consultants, traffic engineers, police dispatchers and Palo Alto's interim city auditor. About the only thing that links these officials is their vague title.
Taken as a group, the management specialists earned more than $3 million in 2010.
Not coincidentally, the number of management specialists at City Hall has been rising at the same time as Palo Alto's overall workforce has been on the decline. Dozens of workers have retired or have seen their positions eliminated over the past two years. Palo Alto eliminated 60 positions that were supported by its General Fund over the past two fiscal years, and 46 other positions have been held vacant to save money.
The overall number of positions in the General Fund has dropped from 730 in 2003 to about 580 today, City Manager James Keene told the council during its annual retreat in January.
The "management specialist" designation is Keene's tool to keep the city running despite the recent flux. Typically, the council approves all the staff positions in June, when it approves the annual budget. The budget document lists every General Fund position in each department. If the city manager wants to add a new position during the year, he has to bring it back to the City Council for approval -- a process that can take weeks.
Or, he can hire someone on a temporary basis and designate that person a "management specialist."
In an interview this week, Keene told the Weekly that the current policy for hiring temporary managers causes problems in regards to both transparency and recruitment. One the one hand, citizens looking at the city's long list of management specialists typically have no way of knowing what exactly these people do. On the other hand, newly hired managers and professionals aren't always thrilled about carrying a relatively meaningless, catchall title.
"When you're trying to bring someone into the organization, you want them to have a title that reflects what they're doing," Keene told the Weekly.
Interim City Attorney Donald Larkin illustrated that point at a Dec. 14 meeting of the council's Policy & Services Committee. He told the committee that his office recently tried to hire an employee to fill a temporary vacancy after a deputy city attorney left. But because the office wasn't allowed to hire a new deputy city attorney, the city had to hire a "management specialist" to fill in for the deputy city attorney.
"I don't know any lawyers that want to put on their resumes 'management specialists,'" Larkin told the committee. "We're calling them deputy city attorneys.
"They're management specialists on paper, but no one is calling them management specialists."
To deal with the problem, Keene has proposed reforms to create more flexibility for hiring temporary employees without having to use the "management specialist" designation. Keene's proposed reforms, which have yet to be reviewed by the full council, would allow him to assign new managers and professionals other positions without explicit council approval, provided that he stays within the council-approved budget.
He told the committee in December that given the city's shrinking staff and sizeable turnover, "We need to have more flexibility than we have now."
Keene said the Human Resources Department is now putting together a specific recommendation, which he hopes to bring to the Policy and Services Committee in the next month or two. He said he hopes to bring the issue to the council and make the necessary changes before the next fiscal year begins on July 1.