Editorial: Palo Alto utilities need closer watch | September 19, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - September 19, 2007

Editorial: Palo Alto utilities need closer watch

Despite reform efforts, city-owned Utilities Department has a deep culture of negative behaviors and needs annual monitoring

No greater or more concentrated effort to change a huge component of Palo Alto city government has ever been made than in the past two years in the city's vast Utilities Department.

But the perception of success has been marred. A recent firing of a probationary employee triggered a union protest and uncovered a complex but disturbing pocket of intrigue within the department, with new allegations of harassment and intimidation. One mid-level manager has been transferred and disciplined after an investigation upheld harassment allegations against him.

It is disheartening that these new allegations have surfaced, as the big impact will be on the morale and perceptions of the remaining 220-plus employees in the sprawling department, which has an annual budget as large as the rest of the city's.

The new case has badly shaken some employees, according to a number contacted by the Weekly, several of whom expressed fear of retaliation if quoted.

"Coming through the last scandals we were already down, and we were looking for somebody to pick us up," one employee told the Weekly. The current case "is where we see that there's no lifting up. It's almost the exact opposite."

The prior scandals stemmed from some department employees being discovered moonlighting in Menlo Park, using city equipment to do work on private property. The department underwent an intensive six-month investigation that cost the city $300,000. The probe, by a retired police captain, resulted directly or indirectly a change of top management and disciplining of 19 department employees. Two ultimately were terminated.

In the past year, current Utilities Director Valerie Fong was hired to head the rebuilt department.

The Weekly last Feb. 14 detailed the rebuilding progress in a cover story, but cautioned in an editorial that the city needed to monitor closely whether the changes instituted over the prior year by interim directors Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison and Administrative Services Director Carl Yeats would stick.

As any savvy manager of a large organization knows, changing the culture can be the hardest task of all.

In the case of the Utilities Department, according to documents obtained by the Weekly relating to the 2005 investigation, there were areas where employee harassment, intimidation and favoritism were strong elements of daily life within the department, especially at the Municipal Services Center in the baylands.

This was not a new phenomenon. The Weekly in 1994 reported extensively on an earlier "time-cards scandal" that led to felony prosecutions of two middle-managers. Peripheral charges of lax management and harassment of some workers apparently were never pursued or effectively dealt with.

"The question now is whether the reforms and changes will be enough to root out a longstanding culture of lax management and what some employees have called a prison-like hostile work environment," the Weekly observed editorially last February.

"Are the current reforms enough to change that deeply rooted culture? City officials believe they are. Only time will tell, but time could use some help," the editorial noted.

The Weekly suggested that the city auditor, who reports directly to the City Council, be assigned to do "an annual survey of the entire Utilities Department staff, at all levels, with identities of individuals carefully protected. Such a survey should measure the effectiveness of management changes made so far and monitor their staying power over at least several years, if not indefinitely.

"Only in this way can the public be truly assured that the conditions that enabled this situation to develop have been corrected, an important aspect of the public's right to know."

Many hardworking and dedicated utilities employees feel undermined and betrayed by the seeming inability of management to root out pockets of negative behavior. Both the public and the employees deserve better than to allow such conditions to continue.

In light of the new allegations we once again — with renewed urgency while the problem seems manageable — urge the city auditor and council to include monitoring as part of the auditor's work plan this year and at least for the next few years.


Posted by Willitz, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 20, 2007 at 4:39 pm

Palo Alto utilities isn't the only place that needs closer oversite- how about that agency that is supposed to watch over San Francisquito Creek. They've had [portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff] for years and little has been done about it on any level.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 20, 2007 at 5:59 pm

We need to dump this green foolishness and get back to what a utility is all about. Ms. Fong is all sizzle and no steak. It is time for the Tumbrils to roll. It is not all Fong's or Frank's fault, it is foolish directives by a council with stars in their eyes and lead in their butts. I see nothing better in the new candidates, alas.

Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 20, 2007 at 9:52 pm

It would be prudent for Council to at least *consider* a sale of the utility. It might not be a good idea, but it also *might* generate enough capital to insure a municipal revenue trust that would deliver just as much to the General Fund as the utility does, with enough left over to pay for some badly needed infrastructure and a substantial solar retrofir of a significant (if not all) of our community.

Just imagine:

1.Steady General Fund revenue

2.Infrastructure paid for (roads, library/rec center, public safety building, etc

3.*Additional* income genreated from Palo Alto homes that feed surplus electricity back to the grid

Posted by Hire more employees, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 20, 2007 at 10:53 pm

Sell the utilities and do what we do best. Hire more city employees. Give bigger pensions to hard working city employees - they deserve it.


Posted by His name is Ulrich, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 21, 2007 at 12:13 am

Seems Mr Wallis has forgotten the name of the long time Utilities manager who oversaw all the corruption and abuse. John Ulrich was the "golden boy" of the city manager. Everyone stood at attention when he spoke. His name is John Ulrich, Mr Wallis, in case you have forgotten.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 21, 2007 at 6:38 am

Ulrich was then, Fong is now. My criticism of Ulrich when he was relevant is a matter of record. Our oh so green council has not seen fit to respond to an earlier suggestion of mine, that they lead the nation in substituting teleconferencing for the out of town meetings that take up so much management time. Look for them to, instead, start buying carbon offsets for official travel. At least we know they will insist on genuine organic offsets. I sometimes think the entrances to the city need Golden Arches.

Posted by pete, a resident of Professorville
on Sep 21, 2007 at 2:40 pm

It seems from anecdotal stories and recent reported incidents that Ms. Fong is unable to "root out the culture of lax management..." to quote the PAW editorial. The vast majority of employees deserve better than they've been given. Mr. Benest, Ms. Harrison, and Mr. Yeats where is your oversight?

The union should take substantial responsibility for "...the deeply rooted culture". It defends a few bad apple employees and ignores the interests of the many who work in a "prison-like hostile work environment".