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City Manager Frank Benest's job in jeopardy?

Original post made on Oct 23, 2007

After an unusual 2.5-hour closed personnel "evaluation" session by the City Council Monday night, City Manager Frank Benest still had his job. But it may be hanging in the balance.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Tuesday, October 23, 2007, 2:15 PM

Comments (23)

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Posted by Fireman
a resident of another community
on Oct 23, 2007 at 4:17 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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Posted by No-Faith-in-the-City-Council
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 23, 2007 at 4:37 pm

> When will the unbelieveable stories stop..

The preceding city manager was no peach either. The problem is with the city council.

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Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 23, 2007 at 4:54 pm

I'm not going to cast aspersions at Frank Benest, because he's clearly been hobbled by the egregious failure of past policy makers to properly husband resources sufficient to sustain our city. This includes at least one sitting City Coucil member, and a bevy of others who are happily still in the "inside circle" of PA politics. How does one act on the recommendations of our very capable auditor with the dwindling paucity of resources that this city maintains today. It's a Catch 22.

In fact, the whiners in this town who complain that there's no accountability only have to look at the last two years to put the lie to their statements. Utiliy, and other senior staffers have been raked over the coals, and fired.

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Here's a clue for you. This city is going to *continue* to flail about - no matter *who* the city manager is, until we find coordinated policy-making leadership that can sustain itself over three or four generations of Council elections; a coordiinated Council that can *lead*, and generate a coordinated *vision* - generating a focus on the things that need to get done in order to make this city sustainable, into the future.

This is a tall order in a place like Palo Alto, whose strength (it's highly-educated, overachieving demographic) is also its weakness.

It will take a special kind of leadership to make this place fire on all cylinders. It might also take a change in our governance model, but by the time that happens, we'd better have done what needs doing, or it wiull have been too late.

Palo Alto will do fine, going forward. Will it optimize its potential? THAT's the $100K question.

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Posted by Logical
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 23, 2007 at 5:39 pm

Frank isn't going to lose his job. He insured his tenure when he failed to fire Emily Harrison for her malfeasance.

What's council going to do? Have Emily be the acting City Manager while they spend a year+ trying to find a replacement?

Really, I think Frank is a whole lot smarter than anyone (pro or con) gives him credit for.

Like this comment
Posted by Why fire Frank
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 23, 2007 at 6:01 pm

No one ever said he isn't smart. He is too tuned into the development forces and sees residents as getting in the way. Here's the beginning of a list of reasons he should go. Just a beginning.
*Enron decision 22 million dollars
*storm drain miscalculation followed by fictitious statement about rising costs; cited imaginary statistics about inflation
*Utilities dept scandals, coverup
*protected John Ulrich, Utilities Manager, and allowed him to stay on for 9 more months to maximize his retirement money (our money)
* $225,000 for an incompetent website with months passing and no visible improvement
*Tried to hire a Stanford PR executive to be a manager in the Planning Dept.just prior to Stanford revealing its major redevelopment. Said he did a national search to fill the job. He didn't.

Like this comment
Posted by Not so fast
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 23, 2007 at 6:34 pm

Who will fire Frank? the city council? Not on your life--Frank leads the city council around by the nose--he is accounatble to no one.
Malfeasance with Utility department, emily Harrison? No problem. Enron payoff costing the city $22million? Storm drain tax miscalculation? still no problem. The list goes on and on.
In another thread we hear that the city auditor's recommendations are basically ignored? City councilman Morton says that is not a problem (either the council can say they were just recommendations or admitting that they were ignored will make the council look bad).
To fire Frank the council would have to develop a spine and take a stand and make a forceful decision.
think that will happen? not with our council--they are too busy travelling around the country telling everyone how we do "things right" here, while dancing the night away, or they build little used pedestrian tunnels or develop worthless city websites. Our mayor is busy jetting off to London and travelling in private texis while lecturing us about climate change and appearing in weekly photo-ops.
Nope, our council does not have time to deal with Frank--there are more importantthings to do.
the best thing they can do is vote Frank a big raise and sign over the deed to the house he lives in to him. Also letting him retire now with a pension at 200% his current salary is what he deserves.
Can't deal with Frank--that would cause conflict an dour city council hates conflict.

Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 23, 2007 at 6:37 pm

Enron decision - NOT made by Frank Benest

Storm Drains - Benest does not control construction inflation

Utilities - what cover up?

Ulrich was not found culpable, do you believe in justice by trial, or hearsay?

Benest's reports are *partially* responsible for the website - most malfeasance lies with the contractor, who should be held fully accountable for the pathetic excuse for a website that they patched together (probably, in their sleep, after several late nights out, high on mescalin)

The Planning dept deployment was sneaky; I'll grant that. But then, Mr. Benest is probably angling foro a position at Stanford, eventually. Frankly (no pun intended), it might be a good thing to have someone friendly to Stanford in the planning process, as we have badly mucked up our long-term relationship with the latter.

Like this comment
Posted by Lois
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 23, 2007 at 6:58 pm

To all those who wish that Emily Harrison be fired should remember that she is running this City. The day to day operations would be in far worse shape if she wasn't on board and running things.

Like this comment
Posted by opinionated
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 23, 2007 at 7:18 pm

For those who think Frank leads City Council around, isn't that his job? Council members come in and out. Continuity is critical or we would have a new City Manager every 2 to 4 years. With that being said,

He has said in his own words that he is only dealing with the hiring of Diane Jennings as library director and Valerie Fong as utilities director; ongoing negotiations with Stanford Shopping Center, auto dealers and Stanford Medical Center; finalizing the contract with labor unions; and budget cost-cutting.

Why isn't he running the City operations? Council should be dealing with policy issues, not the operational aspects of the City. Key executive staff members have been investigated, had complaints against them for outrages violations that have broken the law (discrimination, harrassment, etc.)

Our Council members are elected to represent us on policy issues within the City. More and more, we are asking them to become City Managers, Department Heads, etc. Or worse, we are demanding departments be run as if we were the directors.

I for one, do not want the responsibility of determining what each City employee should be doing. I elect my Council, who hires a City Manager and others, who run the City.

Like this comment
Posted by Joan
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 23, 2007 at 7:34 pm

If only we could get Bill Zaner back as City Manager to run this City again.

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Posted by Lost-Faith
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 23, 2007 at 8:25 pm

> Enron decision - NOT made by Frank Benest

The decision to engage Enron might not have been his decision, but the decision to disengage from Enron most certainly was in his domain (and this was the decision which cost us the big bucks). There does not seem to be any evidence of a City Council voted to cut-and-split before the decision was made.

> Storm Drains - Benest does not control construction inflation

The scope of the project was his decision before it went to a vote. He could have encouraged his P/W people to be ultraconservative about construction inflation before committing to a given project size. (China has been sucking up concrete and steel for some time now.)

> Utilities - what cover up?

The probe of the Utilities was covered up by just about every connivance possible from the City Manager’s office. When the so-called probe was finished, the City Manager revealed very little information—and certainly no information as to how the situations which were revealed to the public via the documents forced out of the City Managers tight little hands after the Court found that the City had no right to deny the Weekly’s public information request. The fact that the City lost the case is a prima facia evidence of an attempt to cover up the truth about the matter.

> Ulrich was not found culpable, do you believe in justice
> by trial, or hearsay?

About twenty people (or 10%) of the Utility Staff was disciplined, or terminated, based on the probe of this matter. Ulrich may not have been “culpable” of doing anything “wrong”, but he most certainly was culpable of not doing any thing “right”.

Like this comment
Posted by Why fire Frank
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 23, 2007 at 10:10 pm

Ulrich also was under investigation for not listing his holdings in PG&E, a company with which the Utilities Dept. does business.
The unexpected increase in the storm drains was described by the staff as
"30-50% increase in construction costs that have occurred over the past two years. This increase is worldwide "
This figure is unsubstantiated. a) there are no worldwide statistics on construction costs, and
b) the inflation in this country for construction is 5-7%. If you can find any data resembling a 30-50% increase, let's hear about it.
That Benest may be angling for a job at Stanford is an excuse for hiring one of their executives (unqualified) for a management post in the PlanningDept? Excuse me?

Like this comment
Posted by joyce
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 24, 2007 at 5:28 am

The web site contractors designed a mess, but it's city management that was crazy enough to approve the quarter million price tag, and that either didn't review the work in progress or was so Internet clueless that they thought it was okay.

Like this comment
Posted by Fire Frank
a resident of another community
on Oct 24, 2007 at 6:57 am

Fire Frank!!!!! If he is into budget cuts then he needs to start with his own salary!!! Find someone who supports the community and the people who run the community.. Not someone who tries to save money by cutting Fire and Police!

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Posted by Lost-Faith
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 24, 2007 at 11:40 am

> but it's city management that was crazy enough to
> approve the quarter million price tag

The price tag was approved before the work began. The real question is what is the city's web-site supposed to do? That question wasn't asked, so there is still no answer. There is every reason to believe that the city should be spending more on its web-site, so that it can deliver more e-services than it does now.

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Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 24, 2007 at 12:01 pm

Lost-Faith, Why-fire-Frank,

What's right with Palo Alto? I bet you can't find very much. That say's it all.

I don't see people walking around with furrowed brows, all concerned about how they're being ripped off by incompetent city staff. Rather, I see a few miscreants in these forums who enjoy tearing things down.

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Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 24, 2007 at 12:06 pm


1) 12-18% is normal for construction inflation costs these days - that's enough to put the kabosh on a forward construction contract

2) Again, Benest did NOT vote the $20M+ to Enron

3) Cover up? Balony! It was an attempt to prevent an overinstrusion into the details of government operations. Employees were fired, and disciplined, weren't they? That should be enough.

The trouble with diggers is that they never run out of dirt.

Like this comment
Posted by Skip
a resident of another community
on Oct 24, 2007 at 12:45 pm

Benest is a fraud. Palo Alto, the "shining city" and birthplace of hi-tech, has a website less impressive than any 14 yr old kids MySpace page. His lack of leadership on key issues has been a problem from the start. Benest should go back to promoting rock bands, or selling snake oil. I'm happy to have survived my time as a P.A. resident. The air outside the vacuous, pretentious, bubble of Palo Alto smells so sweet!

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Posted by Lost-Faith
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 24, 2007 at 12:51 pm

> Again, Benest did NOT vote the $20M+ to Enron

What are you talking about? There was a valid contract with Enron to deliver power in the future at a very high price. There were some escape clauses which allowed the city (as a signatory) to exit the contract without liquidifiable damages. At no time did Enron default on any power delivery, so the city was not able to claim "non-performance".

The city exited the contract, which was worth $100M (or thereabouts) to Enron without the city council's approval. Enron sued, and was able to regain $20+M from the city. Benest was the city manager at the time of the contract abrogation.

No one ever said "Benest voted for ... ". What has been suggested is that the decision to exit could only have been Benest's since he was the city manager and there was no vote by the council.

End of story.

Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 24, 2007 at 3:47 pm

Who approved the payment to Enron?

It wasn't Mr. Benest.

Sometimes, one's imagination and wishful thinking gets in the way of facts...

Like this comment
Posted by Lost-Faith
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 24, 2007 at 4:13 pm

> Who approved the payment to Enron?

What payment?

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Posted by Graduate Student
a resident of Ventura
on Oct 24, 2007 at 4:58 pm

Frank Benest is the first Council Appointed Officer to have successfully bargained at the time he was hired for severance pay in exchange for being removed from office by the City Council.

The city's Charter gives the Council the absolute right to remove Benest at any time without any payment.

I believe the Council Members made a mistake when they agreed to a guaranteed severance pay.

After Benest got the right to collect severance pay, the other three Council appointed officers (the Attorney, Auditor, and Clerk) and, on Benest's recommendation, the Assistant City Manager and the nine department heads also received the same benefit.

If an officer leaves without being asked to leave by the Council, the officer loses the severance pay.

Former City Attorney Ariel Calonne left to become City Attorney of Boulder, Colorado without collecting severance pay.

Severance pay is more than just nine months salary, because it is nine months cash equivalent of salary plus benefits.

Currently, the budgeted amount for benefits for employees other than police and firefighters is 40% on top of salary, so Benest's severance pay could be (9/12) x (1.40) = 105% of salary.

Since Benest bargained for severance pay when he was hired, I believe he regards his severance pay as an entitlement and he won't leave voluntarily.

Instead, I believe Benest will provoke the Council to terminate his employment so he can collect the severance pay he believes he has been entitled to since he was hired as City Manager.

If the Council doesn't fire Benest or ask him to resign because of his performance, including most recently the new city website, the oral instead of written employee investigation, and the lack of response to the Auditor's recommendations, then I believe Benest will continue to behave against the Council's wishes until six Council Members figure out that the only way to get rid of Benest is to pay him the severance pay he has expected since he was first hired in April 2000.

I hope the Council learns from this experience that guaranteeing severance pay was a mistake that should not be repeated.

Some of you are wondering whether it is a good idea for Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison to replace Benest at least temporarily while the Council is looking for a new permanent City Manager, and some of you might even suppose that Benest deliberately disciplined Harrison to protect his own job, thinking that the Council would not replace him with Harrison after she had been disciplined.

There is bound to be at least one Council Member who is smart enough to know that the Council can always hire a temporary City Manager, such as a retired City Manager of another city, to serve during the search for Benest's replacement if that is necessary to get the six votes required to terminate Benest's employment.

Like this comment
Posted by Lost-Faith
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 24, 2007 at 8:48 pm

> I believe the Council Members made a mistake
> when they agreed to a guaranteed severance pay.

It’s a toss .. the problem these days is that there aren’t too many people qualified to be a city manager (or at least one with a lot of experience), so they can pretty much write their own ticket. Nine months severance is not that much money, and it should give the council comfort to know that their decision to terminate a city manager will not result in his/her being without funds (as if someone who has been making $200+K a year is destitute). Six months severance would be better for the taxpayers, but what’s done is done.

Yes, hiring a temporary city manager would be a no-brainer, providing that one could be found. Former CM Bill Zaner was working as a temporary CM after he left Palo Alto. Presumably, through the California League of Cities, as well as contacts with other cities, a list of qualified temporaries could be located.

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