Council Wrestles with Role in Employee Layoffs in Aftermath of Tree Trimmer and Other Layoff Issues

treetrimmingIn the city manager form of government, the city council has a limited role to play in the hiring and laying off of employees.  They hire the city manager and city attorney, but the city manager hires and fires all other staff.

The city clearly suffered a blow back in June, following the post-election layoff of employees who were part of the DCEA (Davis City Employees Association) bargaining unit, in particular, the tree trimmers.

On Tuesday, Councilmember Brett Lee made the suggestion, during the long range calendar, to formalize an advisory role for the council when employees are laid off.

“I think that we should be involved in that process,” Councilmember Lee told his colleagues.  “I don’t think it should rest solely on the shoulders of the city manager.”

“I’d be interested in perhaps having some sort of an advisory language, in terms that we the city council, would be jointly involved whenever there would be planned layoffs for city employees,” Councilmember Lee proposed.

He clarified, in his comments, that he believes the city manager is doing a good job and that this proposal is not to restrain or restrict him.

“The idea is that we’re in the loop and we take a shared responsibility for those types of tough decisions that we as a community may face,” he added.

While Councilmember Lee was quick to note that this was not a criticism of City Manager Steve Pinkerton or an effort to restrain him, several members of the council have privately expressed concerns, both in terms of the decision to lay off the tree trimmers and the decision to hire a new assistant city manager.

In particular, specific language within the city’s press release served as a red flag: “She is currently the City Manager for the City of Fillmore where she has focused on restructuring City operations to achieve cost savings. Over the past two years, the City has made 40 percent cuts in the General Fund; reduced about 50 percent of its workforce; and changed the compensation structure for existing staff.”

The feeling was that emphasizing the 50 percent reduction of Fillmore’s workforce may have been inappropriate, particularly during a time when the city is wrestling with its own employee contracts that are now approaching three months overdue.

None of this was explicitly mentioned on Tuesday, though Brett Lee noted, “I think this [proposal] provides a safeguard for city workers, the city staff that if they are concerned about personalities, whether it’s the current city manager or future city manager that really the case has to be made sufficiently well so that the city council would also have to weigh in and agree with the decisions.”

Mayor Pro Tem Dan Wolk noted, “It is something I thought of with the Tree Trimmer, sort of what is the role of council when it comes to issues like layoffs.”

City Attorney Harriet Steiner said, “The city right now has the city manager form of government which means that the only employees that you [the council] directly hire and fire are the city manager and the city attorney.  But obviously the city council, you set goals for the whole city, including goals you want to see the city manager carry out for you.”

The council has heavy involvement in employee negotiations, she said, noting that the council in the end has to approve the contracts which set salaries and compensation.

She also noted that under the terms of the city manager contract, the council has the ability to have closed session assessment sessions, and meetings with the city manager to evaluate job performance.

Councilmember Lucas Frerichs agreed with both Councilmember Lee and Mayor Pro Tem Wolk.  He was cognizant about not blurring the lines in the city manager form of government, however, definitely wanted to see, at least, the subcommittee which evaluates the city manager look into this.

Councilmember Lee emphasized that the word he used was “advisory” and that he didn’t want to “formally change the role of the city manager.”  Instead, he expressed the “desire to be included in the loop whenever the city manager contemplates laying people off.”

Mayor Joe Krovoza noted that there was already a subcommittee of he and Councilmember Swanson, designated to review the city manager’s performance.  He said that they would get moving on that process.

In his view of the role of the council, “We set policy and we hire Steve [Pinkerton] to carry that policy out.”

“I think maybe there’s a misunderstanding about whether the prior council did or not know that there would be those layoffs,” he said responding to a point by his colleagues on the tree trimmers.  “Based on the discussions that had gone on surrounding the impasse situation we were in, it was not a surprise to me.  And I thought that the entire council was aware of that, based upon some of the discussions that had happened.”

However, one of the key problems that many have cited was not the action itself but the timing of the action, which occurred right after an election in which the public approved the extension of a parcel tax to fund parks.

A day later, parks workers, including the city’s tree trimmers, were laid off.

It was an error that the mayor seemed to acknowledge on Tuesday, as he stated, “The timing was not known.  Kind of when it was going to happen.”

Still, he appeared to support some of Brett Lee’s proposal, stating that it would be good to know when these things are going to happen.

Privately, at least, there is some concern that some councilmembers may be more in the loop than others as to the actions that will be taking place.  While Joe Krovoza may have known that the layoffs were coming, some of his other colleagues may not have.

Councilmember Frerichs also expressed concern about the communication process, which has been a big source of contention both in the unveiling of the layoffs in June and also with the hiring of the new assistant city manager.

Mayor Joe Krovoza pushed for the city staff to come back in October with “elements of a communications strategy.”

He spoke of integrating the communications strategy, but stopped short of calling for a designated communication director for the city – something that the city desperately needs, despite the tough budget times.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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1 Comment

  1. Frankly

    With all due respect to Mr. Lee, it was prior city councils that put us in this financial hole that required the city manager to lay off these employees.

    Let’s take a page out of best practices for corporate governance and let the executive officers manage the budget and do the hiring and firing. Moving more authority to the council would be just like passing staff level budget, hiring and firing authority to a board of directors. That is not done for very good reasons. In addition, getting the council more involved at this level of detail just politicizes what should be pure business decisions. It allows political influence to corrupt the decision process.

    The council should direct the city manager in more general performance expectations, and stay out of his detailed business. If the council really wants to prevent future layoffs, then the council only needs to stop pandering to the public employee unions and start working [b]aggressively[/b] to cut city worker pay and benefits to labor market levels.

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