Investigation prompted Harrison suspension | April 6, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 6, 2007

Investigation prompted Harrison suspension

Outside consultant interviewed staff members, filed report prior to three-week suspension of Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison

by Jay Thorwaldson

An outside consultant was called in to investigate a grievance that led to a three-week suspension without pay of Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison last month.

Harrison is expected to return to work within the next 10 days following the unprecedented action against a key member of the city administration. She was suspended in late March by City Manager Frank Benest, who has not returned calls to the Weekly relating to the case.

City Attorney Gary Baum, who reportedly initiated the investigation and submitted the report to Benest, initially would neither confirm nor deny that an investigation was conducted or that a report exists.

Rumors have swept through City Hall since the disclosure of the suspension, with heavy speculation as to what it might mean for both Harrison's future and for the city administration.

Harrison has been an increasingly key member of the city staff ever since Benest joined the city in 1999. Her responsibilities increased sharply for several years after Benest's wife became terminally ill, followed by his own successful but debilitating course of treatment for cancer.

In addition to an already heavy administrative workload, Harrison was put in charge, along with Administrative Services Director Carl Yeats, of rebuilding the Utilities Department both before and after Utilities Director John Ulrich retired under threat of disciplinary action due to inadequate supervision of the huge city operation.

The Weekly has filed a formal request for documents relating to the Harrison suspension under the state's Public Records Act. Baum's office received the letter on Tuesday and has 10 days to respond, and Baum has agreed to meet to discuss the legal issues involved in the balance between personnel/privacy law and laws relating to the public's right to know. Baum's schedule this week was curtailed due to a bout of flu, however.

The circumstances of the case closely parallel an investigation into the city's Utilities Department in 2005. In that case, the Weekly sued the city in September 2005 to obtain documents relating to disciplinary actions against 19 utilities employees and managers, plus Ulrich.

Judge Kevin E. McKenney of the Santa Clara County Superior Court ruled Oct. 10, 2006, that the city had to release key documents in the utilities case because the public's right to know about official conduct overrides personnel/privacy issues when a public agency is involved.

Despite the official silence on the suspension, sources close to the situation indicate that the investigator, who has not been identified, interviewed a number of city staff members prior to submitting the report.

Harrison earlier confirmed an anonymous letter informing the Weekly of a two-week suspension, but she corrected it to three weeks. She said she was taking care of overdue personal business relating to her mother's death last year and other matters. She declined to discuss details of the situation other than to confirm that a grievance had been filed against her.

Sources indicate that the grievance was filed by a mid-level staff member, but no time frame has been established as to any specific incident or situation on which the grievance was based.

One employee said others have expressed surprise at the three-week suspension without pay if it was tied only to a single circumstance, as it would be considered a serious disciplinary action.

One source close to the situation said the investigator interviewed a "large number" of city employees, some of whom reported a pattern of behavior over time in which Harrison allegedly dealt with some staff members angrily or inappropriately.

The source said that others, however, feel her intervention in some troubled areas -- such as the Utilities Department and, earlier, the Department of Planning and Community Environment when it was under fire from a city auditor's report -- was pivotal in helping resolve issues and rebuild trust.

One employee noted that Harrison met with every component group within the planning department, including spending time at the reception desk, to understand fully the work-flow and problems.

Sources within the Utilities Department earlier indicated that Harrison played a positive role there in rebuilding trust among a deeply cynical and divided workforce following a major investigation that cost the city $300,000.

Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at


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