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May 18, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Fighting for Dennis Fighting for Dennis (May 18, 2005)

City employees sign petition to keep disabled employee on payroll

by Bill D'Agostino

Fellow City of Palo Alto workers are not letting Dennis Harman, a proud city employee who is mentally and physically handicapped, go without a fight.

Harman, who works as an assistant for the Parks and Open Space Division and once saved a woman's life while on duty, is on the city's list of proposed layoffs.

More than 100 city workers recently signed a petition asking for his job to be kept in the budget. Those signatures were gathered in about three hours before a Finance Committee meeting.

Colleagues described Harman as "a jack of all trades" and their "right-hand man," Among the numerous small but vital duties he performs for the local government every weekday: he picks up trash before it reaches the San Francisco Bay, drives wounded animals to safety, cleans the outdoor displays in the nature preserves and waters plants in City Hall.

"The stuff nobody cares to do, he always does it with a smile on his face," said Firefighter David Chum, who recalled Harman passing out water bottles during training drills. "I believe we've become his substitute family. Work has given him the structure he needs to succeed in life."

On July 1, Harman might have to leave City Hall after 30 years of employment. He's one of 18 employees on the chopping block.

"You work all these years, you feel like you're yanked out," Harman said while patrolling the Baylands, a plastic grabber in one hand and a plastic garbage bag in the other. "It just means so much to me," he said. "Working with the public -- that's what counts."

Cutting Harman's job will only save $22,109 next year because he works 30 hours a week, his salary is modest and Medicare payments supplement his health care costs. (The city is struggling to balance a projected $5.2 million deficit for 2005-06.)

During last Tuesday's Finance Committee meeting, a committee member asked City Manager Frank Benest about the impact of Harman's job being eliminated; Benest downplayed the position.

"It will require that the city manager periodically water his plants," he said, before quickly adding, "I don't mean to make light of it."

Others disagree with Benest.

Phillip Plymale, a public works engineer, noted that Harman picks up garbage in the city's nature preserves before birds and other animals swallow debris and choke. It's a task that the rangers, especially with other proposed reductions in their budget next year, won't have time to perform.

"It seems like a minor thing, but it not only helps the city and quality of life for the city, it also helps the wildlife," said Plymale, a union steward.

Recently, Harman -- who is on dialysis and controls his diabetes with his diet -- helped Senior Ranger Daren Anderson save a 2-week-old snowy egret whose siblings had pushed it out of the nest in the Baylands. Harman drove it in his small green city truck to wildlife rescue.

"The fewer rangers and people like Dennis there are, the more dead animals there will be," Anderson said.

It was not Harman's first lifesaving effort. On Oct. 15, 1990, Harman spotted a woman passed out in her car near the Baylands; her two young daughters were passengers.

According to the merit notice the police chief gave him later that month, Harman notified 911 and firefighters took her to the hospital, where she was treated for a drug overdose.

After hearing from Harman and his supporters last week, the city manager insisted that the law and union contracts required the city to only consider the impact of any position on the chopping block, not the person filling that position.

"We made choices about where we could tolerate reductions in services based upon business criteria," Benest said during the meeting. "I don't want to get into the individual circumstances of individual employees."

The Finance Committee unanimously approved the Community Services Department budget, including Harman's layoff. The full City Council will approve the budget in June.

Without the job, Harman, who's lived alone in San Mateo ever since his mother died four years ago, won't be out on the street. He also works for Hertz rental car, "shuffling cars around." He also could retire, get a pension and receive public assistance.

But his older brother says Dennis needs the income to stay fully independent. Besides, Harman really likes working for the city.

"My sense is this is the whole basis for his self-esteem," said Patrick Harman, who lives in Washington.

Harman's pride was especially on display last Friday when he took care of Guapa, an 11-year-old California Kingsnake used in educational programs.

"She's the joy of my life," he told a stranger while tenderly holding the brown and tan striped snake as she slithered around his arms into a pretzel-shape. Harman cleans Guapa's cage, feeds her frozen mice and changes her water.

"The question is, 'Are they are so inhumane or so locked into a policy that they can't make an exception?'" Patrick Harman asked. "It seems kind of ludicrous to me."

Staff Writer Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at [email protected]

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