First of all, the city acted correctly in releasing the disciplinary report about Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison to the public. According to two First Amendment lawyers I have talked to, once a public employee is formally disciplined, that action trumps any privacy issue concerning the employee. In other words, according to the law, the public is entitled to know why a high-ranking city employee was disciplined.
And the report, to its credit, is specific, and indeed shows that there were many reasons why Harrison received a three-week suspension without pay. In the public employee working world, I have been told that such a suspension, particularly without pay, is the step before termination.
I think there are two facets to Harrison’s personality. One part of her is the efficient, intelligent, hard-working person who has been running this city very effectively from day-to-day. She is the hands-on person who knows exactly what is going on and who can tell you what is happening. As a member of the press, I have appreciated her candor.
But there is the other part of Harrison that can shut you off immediately. I know from my previous job at the Daily News that if our paper wrote something she did not like, calls from reporters were not returned. I once wrote a column where I referred to her friendship with Police Chief Lynne Johnson, and since that incident a year-and-a-half ago, she has refused to talk to me – even though the Mercury-News had run an entire column about the friendship.
According to the report, Harrison “engaged in a pattern of disrespectful and offensive behavior toward employees (since 1995) by publicly rebuking and berating them in front of others," and had problems working with three of the city’s top officials – City Manager Frank Benest, City Auditor Sharon Erickson and City Attorney Gary Baum. She was suspended for creating “a culture of fear” at city hall. The report said, for example, that if Erickson issued an audit that was critical of some department reporting to Harrison, that the assistant city manager would not talk to the auditor for months.
Harrison also engaged in “vindictive and retaliatory conduct toward employees you (Harrison) qHR feel may have wronged you,” Benest said in the memo released Tuesday.
Life at City Hall can be full of challenges, conflicts and disagreements, and the first lesson is that disagreements are not necessarily bad and certainly do not need to be personal.
Harrison has apologized to the three, and has promised to change her behavior. That’s a good first step, and I wish her the best.
I also am glad the report is public. Since the disciplinary action occurred, rumors have been circulating around the city wondering what Emily did, and the rumors were worse than the report itself. Now we know the facts, and can all move forward together.