Town Square

New Utilities Director could cost Palo Alto lots of $$$$s

Original post made by Diana Diamond, Palo Alto Online blogger, on Jun 20, 2006

Not only has it taken more than six months for the city to begin its search for a new Utilities Director for Palo Alto, but City Manager Frank Benest already has warned the City Council that the new hire is going to be an expensive proposition for the city.

Benest recently told the council that because of all the problems the Utilities Department has experienced, the new person will be hard to find and expensive to get.

The city manager hinted that the new utilities director might even have to be offered a house as part of the deal to lure him to Palo Alto. What truly amazed me was the council was told this as the search by a private headhunting firm has just started. There’s nary a candidate in mind to fill the slot, but already the council was told that the person is going to be pricey and may need a house. We’re nowhere near the offer-counteroffer stage.

That to me is a council set-up. And it’s almost a guarantee that whoever is offered the job will demand a house, because Benest, at a public meeting, said these could be the terms.

Granted the department has had problems. The city spent $300,000 investigating allegations of sexual harassment, witness intimidation, false overtime and moonlighting. Six utility department employees quit or were fired and 13 more were disciplined. And there also were the mysterious “resignations” of Utilities Director John Ulrich and his deputy.

The Palo Alto Weekly filed suit to force the city to reveal how it spent $300,000, and unless the judge’s decision is appealed, the city will now have to reveal what these workers did to get themselves in such trouble.

Ulrich announced in October 2005 that he was departing, but the search was not officially begun until recently. Why? Because Benest wanted to decide whether the utilities department should be reorganized, or even split in two, and said that decision was needed before the job could be advertised.

That makes sense, but it doesn’t make sense for the city to have taken nearly five months to decide not to split the department. It seems to me decision-makers could have discussed the pros and cons of reorganizing at a day-long retreat, and then get on with the search.

Since Ulrich’s departure, Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison and Director of Administrative Services Carl Yeats have been running the utilities department together, as well as doing their own jobs, which is a big load, especially since it will probably be months before a person is finally hired.

At Benest’s recommendation, both Yeats and Harrison received a 9 percent (yes, nine) salary increase at the June 12 council meeting, in appreciation for their extra efforts and also to boost their salaries to put them on a par with other department heads (meaning the new utilities director). Ulrich was getting $187,000 when he left. Harrison was making $165,000, and now got a $15,000 boost to bring her up to $180,000, while Yeats also received a $15,000 increase, placing him at the $176,000 level. As an aside, I am not sure why the new person has to get $187,000, since Ulrich worked his way up to that number.

By the way, anytime upper management staff salaries go up, that’s almost a guarantee that Benest will suggest that his salary needs to be raised, to assure that the most highly paid person in the city continues to receive the highest pay.


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Posted by Suckers
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 21, 2006 at 11:40 am

We are suckers... dont you love it...

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Posted by Mark
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 27, 2006 at 9:06 am

These salaries are well within the range when compared to other cities like Palo Alto. Maybe you should do some research on a subject before using the comments that "we are suckers".

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Posted by Not worth the money
a resident of Meadow Park
on Jun 27, 2006 at 9:57 am

They all are getting paid way too much money for the work they do. Having lived in PA for 40+ years; all I've seen is that the services that we are provided are fewer, more expensive and lower quality.

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Posted by cgilbert
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 29, 2006 at 3:51 pm

The people at the top just keep getting more and more. Don't you just love it?! At the same time as the worker bees get cut or held at small increases. It ought to be an exciting plum job to come into Palo Alto and manage Utilities. Civil service jobs were traditionally paid less than private sector and in return had security and pensions. It's time for either a return to this or the big bucks and drop the security and pensions! Nobody else gets all 3!

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Posted by Walter E. Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 6, 2006 at 4:54 pm

I believe the utility department should be split - one half, directed by a Professional Engineer registered in the State of Califonia as a Civil, Electrical or Mechanical Engineer, who would be responsible for the operation and planning of all units of the Utility Department. The other part, headed by a drama major or an acupuncturist, would be responsible for all the hamster wheel power projects and all the other feel good, accomplish nothing projects that Ulrich spent all his time on.

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Posted by Smokey Wallace
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 28, 2006 at 9:25 pm


I have enjoyed you insightful comments on the utilities department fiasco. For the record, I have applied for the position of Director of Utilities and am now mired in the process! I am long time PA resident that seriously cares about our city. For te record, I am a very experienced high tech senior manager that has focused on changing organizational culture and operation. Frankly, I don't think I have a chance of being hired for this position, but I know I could do an outstanding job of turning this organization around. Any help or insight you might provide would be greatly appreciated.

Smokey Wallace...

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Posted by Walter E. Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 6, 2006 at 10:06 pm

Smokey [no relation] you may be too late,. The city is considering monday a proposal to turn the utility department even more into a social engineering project, just incedentally delivering electricity and gas, as long as it is green.

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Posted by Randal
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 17, 2006 at 11:03 am

I’ve been loosely following the utilities investigation and it seems to me that something is missing, what about the other city departments? It’s been my experience that if one department in a city has a problem then it’s not much of a stretch to have at least one more department have the same types of problems. I haven’t seen any indication that other departments were looked at. Also what about the role of the “watch dog” departments, i.e. the city auditor, Personnel/Human Resources, the legal department and the executive branch?

It appears to me that the PA city auditor hasn’t done more than a cursory review of any of the “Operating” departments in several years. If there have been audits, what do they show? Why didn’t the audits catch the so called problems?

My sources tell me that the PA HR department is understaffed, slow to respond and afraid to make decisions and take action. I have been told horror stories about supervisors trying to discipline employees. All PA discipline is supposed to be cleared by HR and the legal dept. I have heard that it will take anywhere from several weeks to several months for HR to act and then only after the personnel lawyer makes sure she’s comfortable. Most times the discipline recommended by the supervisor or manager is either reduced or over ruled. How can discipline be effective if it takes months to deliver and how can any supervisor do a good job when they are not supported by city hall? It is easy to see how employees could get the idea they are immune to repercussions.

I have also heard that the attorney responsible for employee and labor issues is gun shy about making personnel recommendations and has not supported most of the recommendations for discipline and corrective action. What role did this play in employee attitudes that they can get away with anything?

What about the executive branch, the City Manager and Assistant City Manager. Everything I’ve seen in the news indicates that Frank Benest is at best an ineffective leader and absentee manager and at worst knew about the utility leadership problem and didn’t deal with it. All indications are that Ms. Harrison the Assistant City Manager, has done a good job with the investigations but I recently heard that Mike Miller the former senior Public Works employee brought in to investigate things is a close personal friend of Ms. Harrison and may have a big interest in deflecting any dirt away from Public Works. I wonder how much he was paid to only look at one department and why did it take so long? Something to ponder???

What about those guys, Ulrich and Bradshaw, Scapegoats? Possibly bought off with retirement to keep the investigation from spreading? Is this a cover up for deeper problems within the city structure? I wonder?

Lots of unanswered questions. Guess we’ll never really know the whole story but I sure don’t trust “City Hall”.