'Team building' failed to correct Harrison 'abuse' | April 27, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 27, 2007

'Team building' failed to correct Harrison 'abuse'

Lack of change after 2005 retreat threw top administrative staff into 'survival mode,' while some planned to leave

by Becky Trout and Jay Thorwaldson

A serious effort in late 2005 to improve strained relationships within the Palo Alto city manager's office and with other top administrators failed to improve matters and left staff members feeling hopeless and in a "survival mode," according to a detailed investigation released this week.

Some employees became stressed enough to retire from the city earlier than expected, the report indicates.

The investigation concludes that Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison engaged in a pattern of inappropriate, abusive, retaliatory and vindictive behavior toward staff members and other top officials, including City Manager Frank Benest.

Harrison returned to work April 10 after a three-week suspension without pay, and the city this week released more than 200 pages of documents relating to the case, sought by the Weekly under the state's Public Records Act.

Benest and the majority of the City Council told the Weekly this week they are willing to give Harrison the chance to continue in her position, in recognition of her 20 years of service to the city and acknowledged abilities.

But the $23,000-plus investigation by consultant Patricia Elliot of Los Gatos detailed multiple instances of "retaliatory and vindictive" treatment of certain employees and Harrison's severely strained relationships with Benest, City Attorney Gary Baum, City Auditor Sharon Erickson, Director of Administrative Services Carl Yeats and others.

The team-building effort focused on a two-day workshop Nov. 2 and 3, 2005, led by an outside consultant hired by Benest. Elliot reported that the consultant, not identified, said staff concerns "dealt with Ms. Harrison's conduct toward staff and her tendency to lose her temper, yell and behave vindictively toward whomever she was angry with."

The consultant reported that "Ms. Harrison had created a culture of fear, used threats and intimidation and used information as a tool to hold power over employees."

The outcome was a pledge by all managers to improve their behavior with each other, and Harrison said it was a "life-changing event for her."

Yet a follow-up visit in July 2006 with the Executive Staff — a group consisting of Benest, Harrison, Baum, Erickson, City Clerk Donna Rogers and department heads — found some improvements overall — except in Harrison's conduct toward others.

"The culture of fear created by Ms. Harrison was as strong as ever and the department heads felt that another team-building exercise would be a waste of time. They had shifted into 'survival mode,'" Elliot said the consultant reported.

Elliot said at a third workshop last December the staff members avoided discussions of relationships, believing them to be pointless. Two employees reported to Elliot that "they are planning to leave their positions at the city sooner than they would have chosen to if the work environment was more cooperative and professional."

Harrison has expressed "deep regret" in a March 12 letter to Benest while alleging "numerous inaccuracies" in the investigation.

"That does not take away from my willingness to accept responsibility for my actions," Harrison wrote. She also said she had apologized to two of her colleagues: Baum and Erickson.

She concluded, "These past several months have been enormously difficult but I believe I have shown the sincere changes I've made in my life."

Key documents relating to the case are posted on www.PaloAltoOnline.com.

Benest defended Harrison this week.

"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," Benest said. "The discipline has occurred and as far as I am concerned the issue is over."

On April 20, Harrison attempted to stop the release of the documents by filing an administrative appeal, according to Melanie Poturica, an attorney with Liebert Cassidy Whitmore, which is on contract with the city. The appeal delayed the release by a day, until late Tuesday afternoon.

Harrison's efforts, including moves to repair her relationship with Benest, were acknowledged by several council members.

"I believe she has at this point received a message that that (behavior) will not be tolerated," Councilman Bern Beecham said.

"We need to judge Assistant City Manager Harrison based on her 20 years of work at City Hall," Mayor Yoriko 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."

Nonetheless, the investigation paints a harsh portrait of Harrison, who has a 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.

Dating to at least the mid-1990s, according to the documents, Harrison "engaged in a pattern of disrespectful and offensive behavior toward employees by publicly rebuking and berating them in front of others."

When Harrison was the city's finance director, one of her administrative assistants "placed a pinwheel or small flag on her desk to indicate when Ms. Harrison was in a bad mood and should not be approached," the investigation states.

Harrison received numerous cautions and reprimands about her behavior, beginning in 1995 from Fleming building up to an August 2006 recommendation from Benest that she "obtain counseling to address ... behavior issues that affect the staff."

Despite the warnings, Harrison's out-of-bounds behavior continued.

One employee received stress-related worker's compensation support in 2001 following harassment by Harrison, the investigation states.

Harrison also routinely shunned coworkers who triggered her ire — for months at a time, the report states.

Former City Attorney Ariel Calonne, interviewed by the Weekly on Thursday, recalled his many years of working with Harrison. Now the city attorney in Boulder, Colo., Calonne called Harrison "an able administrator with a deeply abusive streak."

Harrison also has supporters, most notably in the Utilities Department, which she co-managed with Yeats for about a year.

She has also received mostly good or excellent marks in past performance reviews.

But her conflicts with Erickson, Baum, Benest and the male employee who filed the complaint responsible for triggering the investigation show a pattern of punishing others for crossing her.

"The pattern in all of these conflicts appears to be that Ms. Harrison feels either betrayed or threatened by something another employee does that affects her, she personalizes the issue and becomes defensive and reactive, acting out in an unprofessional and vindictive manner," Elliot wrote.

The atmosphere had gotten so uncomfortable at least one employee stopped attending meetings run by Harrison. Others "had shifted into 'survival mode,' attempting to do their jobs, but avoiding any issues or concerns with Ms. Harrison in order to stay on her good side as much as possible," one person told the investigator.

In addition, Harrison often laughed, squealed or sang loudly during the workday, sometimes forcing coworkers to explain her noise while talking on the phone, the investigation states. She also once flicked water in the face of another employee to get him to stop talking.

She rolled her eyes at Benest and treated him disrespectfully behind his back, the investigation found.

The particular conflict that led to the investigation began in 2001, when a male employee — whose name the Weekly is withholding to protect his privacy — began reporting to Harrison.

He is a conservative, born-again Christian. Harrison is an outspoken, liberal feminist.

Harrison occasionally mocked his religion and political beliefs, the investigation found.

"Ms. Harrison commented, 'You know (the employee) is almost a fundamentalist? (He) believes in creationism. Isn't that crazy?'" the investigation states.

She also sidelined him, micromanaged his work and would not let him work on large projects, according to the investigation.

Documents from the investigation also suggest that Harrison even told the employee to work from home when she was on vacation so Benest would not assign him work.

In near-annual evaluations, however, Harrison gave the employee consistently good marks.

Then, on Oct. 3, the employee went to ask Harrison a question about a staff report.

According to the employee, "(She) proceeded to say in a very rude, condescending and abusive manner, something to the effect, 'If you think something in this report needs to be corrected, then you can just fix it yourself.'"

Later that day, Harrison acknowledged the employee's request but did not apologize, according to the report.

The employee then scheduled a meeting with Harrison to discuss the incident.

According to him, during the Oct. 10 meeting when he attempted to discuss Harrison's reaction, she changed the topic to discuss his "poor performance." According to the investigative report, she said he had a "passive personality."

"I was shocked at how angry and aggressive Emily became toward me during this meeting when I brought the matter of her behavior to her attention. It was quite frankly, more than a little scary," the employee wrote in an Oct. 15 letter to Benest.

That letter motivated Benest to hire Elliot, who began work Oct. 16.

"When Mr. Baum notified Ms. Harrison that (the male employee) delivered his written complaint against her, Ms. Harrison said, 'I'm not surprised. (His) performance has gone down hill,'" the investigation states.

Elliot met with approximately 25 people, in interviews ranging from half an hour to more than three hours.

The investigation concluded that Harrison:

* Treated the male employee in an offensive manner on Oct. 3

* Retaliated against him for complaining

* Berated and criticized him for his religious and political beliefs

* Treated other employees in an offensive manner

* Created an uncomfortable work environment that impeded employees' ability to do their work.

Benest notified Harrison of her suspension in a March 6 memo.

"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.

"Your performance is and has been unacceptable and cannot continue," Benest said. Further offenses will be punished and possibly result in termination, he said.

Harrison lost about $10,000 in wages during the suspension.

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.

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.

Councilman Jack Morton said Benest had taken the appropriate action.

"I believe everybody now wants to move forward," he said.

Council member LaDoris Cordell agreed, calling the issue "internal" and saying she hoped the council would "not be distracted from the many important issues confronting our city."

Councilman Peter Drekmeier noted that "Emily is an incredibly valuable part of our team."

Vice Mayor Larry Klein and Council member John Barton both said they had no comment.

Council members Judy Kleinberg and Dena Mossar did not respond to calls by deadline.

Former mayor Jim Burch called his experience with Harrison "excellent."

"I've always found her to be fair, objective, sincere and probably one of the most knowledgeable people in City Hall. ... I think she probably deserves the word 'brassy,' but I like brassy people who say what they believe. I don't find her mean or malicious."

Former Mayor Gary Fazzino said he also thought Harrison was "an outstanding employee."

He speculated that long-term employees "become too informal and too relaxed in the way (they) deal with others. ... I think it's important to always remember that this is a formal work environment."

News of Harrison's suspension became public when the Weekly received an anonymous four-line letter postmarked San Francisco on March 21.

"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.

Staff Writer Becky Trout can be e-mailed at btrout@paweekly.com. Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com.