Since he became Palo Alto's chief transportation official in 2009, Jaime Rodriguez has been an energetic, assertive and at times polarizing advocate of bike boulevards, amenities for pedestrians and lane reductions like the one about to take effect on California Avenue.
But it's his work outside the city that has some residents asking questions. Even as he has been plugging away at about 25 bike projects and working on a panoply of traffic initiatives, Rodriguez has been heading his own consulting company called Traffic Patterns, which according to its website specializes in "traffic-operations analysis, traffic-control plan development, traffic-signal and geometric design, expert-witness services, private-development review and grant writing."
Rodriguez also properly lists Traffic Patterns on his annual Form 700, a state-required conflict of interest statement. Described as a limited liability corporation with a fair market value of between $100,001 and $1 million, his company brought in a gross income of $10,000 to $100,000 last year.
But while Traffic Patterns has not been involved in the city's traffic projects, several residents have written letters and contributed postings on Town Square, the online discussion forum, raising concerns about Rodriguez's involvement in the consulting firm. In some cases, these criticisms come from people who are unhappy about the city's ongoing bike projects, which often entail road markings and lane reconfigurations.
In a letter to the council last week, Andrea Smith criticized what she called "ugly bright yellow street signs being put up throughout PA" and wrote that Rodriguez "owns a company that designs and makes street signs." (To be accurate, Traffic Patterns does not manufacture signs.)
"Even the semblance of impropriety isn't good for the city," Smith wrote.
On Town Square, one person anonymously wondered if "there is any link between all the new green and white street markings popping up on the pavement all over town, and Mr. Rodriguez's private company" and called it "suspicious that the town is putting up so many unnecessary and meaningless street signs."
The city's policies permit outside employment, provided an employee meets certain conditions. For department heads, this entails permission from the city manager. Other employees are required to get authorization from their department heads and fill out an outside-employment statement. Approval for outside employment for non-department heads must be renewed annually every July.
The city's policy for outside employment specifies that "when a person accepts employment with the City of Palo Alto, it is assumed that the employment is to be his/her primary job."
"If the person undertakes supplemental work, such work is assumed to be secondary in importance and is subject to the approval of the city," the policy states.
The city's policy also offers guidelines for department heads to consider in authorizing outside employment, including: Will requirements of the outside employment interfere with scheduling, work performance, or on-call status of the city position? Will the status, reputation or credentials of a city position be used as a basis for advertising or soliciting outside employment? Will a conflict of interest likely result from between discharge of official city duties and outside employment duties?
When asked about Traffic Patterns, Rodriguez told the Weekly that he keeps his two roles distinct from one another. He called his company a "small private practice" and said it allows him to "see what other communities are building (both things that work and don't work) and bring that perspective to Palo Alto directly instead of always having to rely on private consultants for input." Under his agreement with the city, his company is prohibited from working on Palo Alto projects, City Manager James Keene said.
Keene told the Weekly that it's not uncommon for employees to have jobs outside City Hall, though it is very unusual for high-level managers to do so. For employees like firefighters, who may have 10-day breaks between shifts, there's nothing strange about them doing something else in the interim, he said.
Rodriguez's situation is unique in this regard, Keene said. When the city was hiring him, his private practice came up during the negotiations.
"It was very clear he was not going to come to work for us if he could not maintain this practice," Keene said. "And he was head and shoulders, by far, the best candidate we had."
Rodriguez has also been working for the company "completely on his own time," Keene said. His outside employment statement, which the Weekly obtained, lists his involvement with Traffic Patterns as taking up five hours per week, on the weekends. Keene and Gitelman said they were both completely satisfied that his private practice does not conflict with his work for the city.
Rodriguez isn't the only high-profile manager with a venture outside the public realm. Gil Friend, who was hired in 2013 as the city's first chief sustainability officer, is another. Friend served as a CEO of the consulting firm Natural Logic, Inc., a corporation that according to his Form 700 has a fair market value between $100,001 and $1 million. According to the form, his gross income from the Natural Logic was between $10,001 and $100,000 in the preceding year.
Like Rodriguez, Friend ran his business before taking on the city job and at the time of his hiring, his private practice was discussed, Keene said. The parties agreed that Friend would end his operating-executive role in the company but that he would maintain his ownership and be allowed to partake in an occasional speech or coaching engagement. He is no longer the company's CEO.
During 2014, Friend coached a few clients in the beginning of the year, taught one course and delivered no speeches, Keene said. Friend's consultancy has taken between five to 10 days this year, all on his own time. Keene characterized Friend's involvement in his private company as "minimal."
"Clearly, he cannot undertake any activities that would interfere with any of his duties with the City of Palo Alto," Keene said.
In defending the city's outside-employment policy, Keene cited Bay Area's high housing costs. Without allowing outside employment, there would be "challenges in attracting talent in a competitive market."
For high-profile positions, he said, these employments are approved "in a very selective way."
"We would want to, on a case-by-case basis, to be able to say whether or not we'd allow this," Keene said.
Keene said that in the wake of recent concerns, he has had several discussions with the city's executive team on expanding the reporting requirements in outside-employment statements. The new details could include such things as geographical restrictions and conditions designed to avoid conflicts of interest as well as perceptions of conflicts.
At least one council member disagrees with the need to allow outside employment for managers. Councilman Greg Scharff told the Weekly that because managers already have a guaranteed salary from the city, it might make more economic sense for them to prioritize their outside-employment duties over their city work.
He did not criticize Rodriguez specifically (he concurred with Keene's and Gitelman's assessment of Rodriguez's work ethic and accomplishments) but suggested that it might be time to revisit the city's outside-employment policy.
"I don't think a manager should be allowed to have outside employment," Scharff told the Weekly.
Even if Rodriguez's employment with Traffic Patterns was authorized by Williams and is disclosed on his Form 700, he ran afoul of the city's policy in at least one respect. When the Weekly asked Gitelman in late November to see Rodriguez's outside-employment statement, she said he did not submit one this year. After the Weekly's request, Gitelman said she asked Rodriguez to provide a statement for her review as soon as possible.
"Clearly we are going to have to review our policy for ensure everyone is aware of this requirement," she said in an email.
Earlier this week, she signed off on Rodriguez's request (which he submitted over the Thanksgiving break) and attached a note that his outside employment will be subject to new conditions that ensure there is no conflict. She said she has reviewed the request and is satisfied that so far there has been none. That, she said, is a bigger concern than his delay in handing in this year's form.
"To me, it's more important that there is no conflict," she said. "I was certainly aware that he had a company and that he did outside work and now I know a whole lot more about it. That's the main thing."