Sunday Commentary: Employee Morale and Other City Manager Fallout

City-EmployeesEarlier this week, we had a brief series on ideal qualities we would be looking for in a new city manager. One of the points we made is that the city manager will be asked to implement policies to improve employee morale. We have had a rough time in the last five or six years. The city has had to reduce its workforce, reduce pay, reduce hours, ask employees to do more while receiving less, and ask them to take concessions.

The community at times has been harsh and critical, and many have laid the blame for the city’s fiscal condition on the employees – ignoring the economy, the council policies, the community indifference, and the lack of sources of revenue.

We are asking our employees to do a lot – yes, they are well compensated, but from all reports, morale is at an all-time low across the board and there is no need for that.

In their six-month plan that was released three weeks after the council election, Mayor Dan Wolk and Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis wrote: “Employee Morale. Considering the difficult budget cuts and personnel decisions that have been made over the past few years, and the often-bumpy relationship between city employees and management, it will be important for the new City Council to build trust with the people who make our city what it is.

“To that end, we plan to have monthly meetings with employees to listen to their concerns, bring back the yearly employee recognition event and show (Dan and Lucas have even pledged to sing), and look at ways of reorganizing City Hall to make it a friendlier place to work – and for the public to visit.”

However, following the publication of that piece, I got a call from one of the city employee leaders and they were beyond skeptical to the point of incredulous about this. From their perspective, employees have taken a huge haircut between cuts to cafeteria cashouts and picking up more of their benefit costs, while pay has either been cut or stagnated over the past five or six years – employee morale is not going to improve anytime soon and by any means other than restoration of pay and benefits.

The feeling among some of these employees groups is that they have been asked to take a huge hit, while the public got hit with a very meager sales tax increase. If you spend $10,000 in the city of Davis on retail items, the sales tax increase amounts to $50. Employees have seen their wages just on cafeteria cash outs go down by $1000 per month in some cases.

And the voters have already balked at perhaps a $50 to $100 PER YEAR parcel tax. From their perspective, the pain has not been shared across the board.

The city manager compensation issue threatens to open those wounds even more as we look at a salary increase from $188,000 to a potential $247,000 – depending on whom the city hires.

Council was between a rock and a hard place on this. Their analysis was spot on, from our view. Davis was paying its city manager $188,000 – the lowest in the region. City manager in Davis is a difficult position, comparable probably to a city twice to three times Davis’ population.

And yet we have: Rocklin, population 59,672, pays its manager $206,999; Brentwood, population 54,741, pays its manager $259,779; Lincoln, population 45,206, pays its manager $231,029; Rancho Cordova, population 67,839, pays its manager $258,914; and Folsom, population 74,014, pays its manager $228,140.

$217,000 to $247,000 puts Davis right in that range.

It is really Catch-22, as the numbers speak for themselves, but there will be consequences and fall-out from it. Davis needs a good and strong city manager to help it through navigating tough policy decisions and, at this point, the even more difficult path implementing them.

At the same time, by increasing the city manager position’s compensation it puts upward pressure on all upper level management whose wages and compensation are often tied indirectly to the city manager. Then you have the rank and file who will be mindful of the pay increase during the next round of negotiations.

As I’ve said, Steve Pinkerton told me on more than one occasion that had he taken even a small amount more in compensation, he never would have been able to reach agreement with the employee bargaining groups.

I have also heard disturbing information potential about the firm the city contracted with in order to find a new city manager. I have heard that quality candidates, some of whom might have taken less than the city was initially offering, stayed away from the search because they did not want to deal with the firm.

It is a small industry for sure, but we have heard the search firm itself has acted as a gatekeeper and pushes its own stable of candidates on cities.

Nevertheless, the council found itself in a difficult quandary. The council is committed to finding a new city manager by the October deadline. Others are betting that the city finds ways to delay it because of how long the process is already taking.

Stay tuned to see how this shakes out. For me, despite all of this, I still support the idea of expanding the pay scale if for no other reason than it gives the city more options.

Hiring the right city manager is probably the most important decision this new council has to make. A wrong move could set the city back considerably.

However, if the city is serious about employee morale, I think it has to go well beyond the well-intentioned ideas laid out by Mayor Dan Wolk and Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis.

—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. Mark West

    “The feeling among some of these employees groups is that they have been asked to take a huge hit, while the public got hit with a very menial sales tax increase.”

    Except of course we have been paying higher taxes all along to fund their excessively high compensation, particularly their outrageous benefits program. How much money have those benefits cost the taxpayers over the past two decades? In addition, we are now faced with $100’s of millions in greater taxes to cover the cost of infrastructure repair and maintenance because the City spent the money intended for those purposes on providing employees with even greater benefits.

    If employee morale is low, tell the grousers to go out and try to find a job in the real economy instead of their tax payer funded playhouse. Those employees willing to get more accomplished with fewer resources should be rewarded, and those complaining about morale should be replaced.

  2. Barack Palin

    “And the voters have already balked at perhaps a $50 to $100 PER YEAR parcel tax. From their perspective the pain has not been shared across the board.”

    Many of the “voters” have suffered their own financial pain and have had their pay and benefits cut too. It’s been a sign of the times. The public worker’s perspective that the citizens haven’t shared the pain is bulldooky. Putting more taxes on the “voters” just increases their pain.

  3. PhilColeman

    A claim of low employee morale in the public sector is often heard, even in the best of economic times. The fact remains that, despite numerous studies to do so, measurement of workforce morale is elusive and has no agreed standard. Typically, a vocal individual or work group is feeling blue and summarily expands this sentiment to the larger work force. It is a common human trait for one to assume, “If I feel this way, it’s the same with everybody else.” And every workforce has its designated number of malcontents.

    Further, the boss sometimes gets a bad rap for low morale when the fault lies elsewhere, completely beyond the authority and responsibility of the employer. Can we blame the City of Davis for the economic downturn suffered by everybody for the past several years? Some choose to do precisely that.

    What is the baseline for morale going up or down? Surely, if something is current down, there must have been prior instances where that same something was proportionately higher. Try to determine when this same individual or work group citing bad morale ever having publicly said that morale was soaring?

    For the casual observer or outsider, note how there is a claim of low morale, yet this declaration never bothers to identify how this measurement was attained. Another standard of credibility one should apply; what is the level of self-interest and ulterior motives to be found in whomever is making the “Bad Morale” claim?

    With all these counterpoints and qualifiers, one can acknowledge that employee morale due to economic circumstances these past few years has suffered mightily. It’s been pervasive throughout the workforce, California and nationally. Remember when “Furlough Fridays” was a term that did even exist in our daily vocabulary. While City employees have indeed suffered, so has most every other workforce, public and private.

    1. Pinkster

      Everyone has suffered, but over compensated, maybe in the past. Monthly pay checks have been cut substantially, another cut hit this month. Divisions have been cut in 1/2 in some cases, work loads have not been cut but have increased. Some groups have not had a raise since 2009, no cola, no nothing. Believe what you want to believe, but employee recognition? At this point I’m just happy the citizens still comment occasionally that they appreciate a job well done.
      The city of Woodland now has better pay and equal comps, total or otherwise, or better (2.7@55). They also have twice the crew size in certain situations. BTW look up where Woodland used to sit on the comparison chart.
      How do you measure low morale? You are a citizen, ask an employee how morale is.
      The city is getting exactly what it wants, new employees replacing the holes left by the existing employees exodus, which should increase as the economy continues to recover.

      1. Barack Palin

        Let them go if they have low morale and feel they can find something better. I’m sure the new employees will come in with a much better attitude.

        1. hpierce

          Several of “the best and brightest” have and will continue to leave… Some have taken early retirement, some have taken private sector jobs that pay as much and more, and offer better growth opportunities. There are still a number of outstanding folk, most of those don’t fee as positive as they did 4-5 years ago, but hey are professionals.

      2. Mr. Toad

        Woodland also captures a lot of our sales tax leakage at Costco, Ross or Home depot to name a few so perhaps this is one way our lack of economic development is playing out.

        1. Don Shor

          Woodland has also had serious budget problems. Their property tax revenues are much lower than Davis. They’ve reduced staffing by 107 FTE since 2008; Davis by 106.

      3. Jeff Boone

        Say “2.7 @ 55″… or 2.anything at 55, and you have lost the right to complain. Sorry.

        Work until you are 65 or 70 like the rest of us working stiffs, and then come back to complain.

        Here is a recommendation to all government employees feeling mistreated and underpaid…

        Calculate the saving had by converting all defined benefit pensions and other post retirement benefits to a defined contribution plan, and require a retirement age of 67 for all non-safety employees, and 60 for all safety employees, an negotiate 50% of that savings as pay increases.

        Done deal. Government saves, and employees are paid more.

        Somehow I think that government employees would fight against a plan like this.

        Which then tells us all what the value of their early life permanent paid vacation benefit is really worth to them… a lot.

        So they need to stop complaining about things like a loss of their COLA since practically nobody in the private sector gets one.

        I have had the following issue with employees over and over again.

        Employee: “I am not paid enough, I deserve a raise.”

        Me: “I don’t agree based on market comp… have you factored the value of your benefits?”

        Employee: “No, because my benefits don’t really impact my current lifestyle.”

        Me: “Ok, how about I cut your benefits and pay you more cash instead.”

        Employee: “No, that does not sound good either.”

        Here is something else to consider… low morale employees are toxic to an organization. Once an employee reaches a low morale position, there is generally little that can be done to turn them around. And if kept on the job, they infest other employees with low morale… especially if they are senior employees.

        Use the DMV as an example. Come in one day and get service from a happy and smiling new employee, and guaranteed four years later when you need to renew your license, if still working there, she will have morphed into a grumpy clone of her more senior coworkers.

        What is the answer?

        First, enthusiastic leaders can breed enthusiastic followers. But you will never fix 100% of your low moral employees. So, build the new guiding principles of the organization and do all the cheerleading you can, and then terminate those that don’t buy in after a period of time. These will likely be more senior employees that are burned out and unable to light their fire again. Then promote from within, and hire new enthusiastic employees to backfill.

        And do so paying lower comp and benefits than before, and the remaining and new employees will still be thrilled.

        1. Don Shor

          Use the DMV as an example. Come in one day and get service from a happy and smiling new employee, and guaranteed four years later when you need to renew your license, if still working there, she will have morphed into a grumpy clone of her more senior coworkers.

          I really wish people would acknowledge the improvement in service at the DMV that has occurred over the last few years, going back (I think) to when Schwarzenegger came in and, as his first official act as governor, fired the DMV Director. My experiences at the Davis DMV have been uniformly efficient and the staff has been cheerful. I know one employee who has been there since the 1980’s; he walks by my shop every day or so on the way down to 7-11. He’s friendly, efficient, and seems very happy.
          I think you need to find some other government agency to dump on now. The DMV has improved greatly.

          1. Davis Progressive

            i agree with don, dmv is vastly improved. the wait time is way down, you take a number, and the service has been good with an increasing amount that can be done online.

          2. Frankly

            The Sacramento DMV gets a 1 out of 10.

            The Davis DMV gets a 5 out of 10.

            My expectations are always a 9 or 10 out of 10.

            I guess some people are just so used to crappy DMV service that anything better than crappy seems marvelous to them.

          3. Don Shor

            Last three times I was at the Davis DMV I had an appointment. In and out in less than 30 minutes each time. 10 out of 10 for me.

          4. Matt Williams

            Frankly, where are the service improvement opportunities at the DMV from your perspective? Where do they fail you?

          5. Jim Frame

            My son got his driver’s license a few weeks ago (and we haven’t seen much of him or the car since). My wife accompanied him so my information is second-hand, but both reported a quick and friendly experience. As for myself, I’ve been delighted with the service that has allowed me to conduct all my DMV business online for at least the last 5 years, maybe 10. No DMV complaints here.

        2. DavisBurns

          Twenty five years ago I experienced the Sacramneto DMV. It lived up to all the jokes and horror stories ever told about it. The Davis DMV is great! My kids come here from Sacramento when they have to deal with the DMV. I find the people pleasant and helpful. The waits are not bad. I’ve gone in at 4 pm several times and had no wait at all. No complaints.

    2. Anon

      I believe Phil Coleman makes very good sense. I have had the pleasure to work with many city staffers, and have found them to be, in general, extremely upbeat, positive, with a “can do” attitude, which was very effectively fostered by Steve Pinkerton as CM. So I have to wonder who these city staffers are that are supposedly disgruntled?

      1. Davis Progressive

        you don’t think people can act professionally if they are unhappy with their work conditions? i have heard that the firefighters in general are unhappy and yet when i see them they are always friendly and courteous. perhaps you are simply seeing their public face rather than a real measure of satisfaction?

        1. Matt Williams

          Although there have been no published numbers to KNOW either way, my sense is that a considerable proportion, possibly the lion’s share, of the attrition has been due to retirements, and the retirees, if they lived in Davis before they retired, still live in Davis. Probably very few people like Pinkerton who have left the area for other public sector employment.

  4. SODA

    I realize I should know this but is the pay range you stated basic compensation or TOTAL compensation? I again say that a unique city manager would want to live and work in Davis for the type of life we have here, as most of us do. And the unique one would not be dissuaded from our engaged community….

    1. Mr. Toad

      This is a great example of the difference between perception and reality. Like a tax starved anorexic looking in the mirror and seeing a fat compensation package your perception of what being city manager is like in Davis is blinded by your sincere affection for the city.

      Pinkerton showed the finest form of leadership, he led by example, remaining underpaid so that he could get concessions from employee groups without appearing to be a hypocrite. He still got squeezed when picketed by the employees while trying to get an intransigent community to move on economic development. He was going to need to get a 2/3 vote to fix the roads and got sued for trying to secure better water for the community. While it may seem special to you from the perspective of a City Manager all this makes Incline Village look a whole lot prettier.

      Now we have a what if they offered $188,000 and nobody came situation. While David focuses on the search firm he makes no mention of the job stresses unique to being City Manager of Davis that include first and foremost no current funds to catch up on deferred maintenance of the roads and pools, unfunded pension liabilities that grow worse by the day, two bargaining units still working under imposed contracts, measure R delaying and potentially blocking economic development with the potential loss of the city’s largest private employer on the table and a population of anti-tax and anti-development zealots who couldn’t care less about the economic realities the city faces. Perhaps when trying to understand why nobody good enough applied to be our city manager we should begin by looking in the mirror.

      1. Davis Progressive

        “While David focuses on the search firm he makes no mention of the job stresses unique to being City Manager of Davis ”

        he did in previous columns arguing that davis is a more difficult city than its size would suggest.

  5. hpierce

    David… if you are interested in accuracy, and aren’t just trying to “fan flames”, and IF my calculator is working correctly. you should revise your “fact” that someone spending $10,000 pays an additional $500. My math indicates that 1% of $10,000 = $100, so 0.5% increase =$50… called an “order of magnitude” discrepancy. Unless, of course, we had approved a 5% sales tax increase, which should result in alleviation of most of current financial woes.

    On another note, much of the morale problem is NOT related directly to compensation/benefits. Look at the money spent to remodel CO to accommodate the CM relocating to one of the most remote places in CH. The remodel to move much of PW to CO to “provide one-stop shopping” when that could have been done with some camera and some software enhancements, without separating engineering and administrative support from the field crews, putting a big crimp in communication with two aligned work groups. The complete abandonment of ANY sort of employee recognition, including the cancellation of relatively low cost events, the absence of Council public recognition of retiring employees who provided 20, 25, 30 or more years of service to the City (CM didn’t always show up at the more informal events that occurred, and CC member, pretty much never). Then there is the significant lack of recognition of concessions that have been made.

    No, the morale problem goes MUCH deeper than compensation.

    1. David Greenwald

      Yes good catch, added an extra zero. Ironically making my point even more.

      “On another note, much of the morale problem is NOT related directly to compensation/benefits.”

      That’s not what I was told by this individual, but the relocation issue is not ingsignificant.

  6. Tia Will

    “tell the grousers to go out and try to find a job in the real economy instead of their tax payer funded playhouse”

    “Let them go if they have low morale and feel they can find something better. I’m sure the new employees will come in with a much better attitude.”

    I would say that these two comments illustrate David’s point that “The community at times has been harsh and critical”.

    I am at a loss as to how these kinds of comments provide any useful insight or move us forwards towards a solution. But then, perhaps that is no the intent ?

      1. Tia Will


        “please explain to us how your post is moving things along?”

        I have a preference for the Vanguard to represent a space where people can exchange ideas which may provoke thoughtful analysis of the problems facing our community. As such I do not feel that posts suggesting that people simply be fired or quit and go elsewhere are positive. One of the reasons that David has heard over and over again regarding why some individuals do not choose to post on the Vanguard is that they find it a very negative space.

        I completely respect your right to post in any way you see fit ( that meets the Vanguard’s moderation guidelines). And I feel that I have the right, and the responsibility as a member of the editorial board to try to move towards a more positive experience for our readers.

        1. Barack Palin

          What’s funny Tia Will is you attack Mark West’s and my statements then sight people who say they don’t want to post on the Vanguard because they find it negative. Aren’t you being negative with your post? Mark West and I posted how we felt, please explain to me how is it a positive experience to then have you attack us?

          1. Tia Will


            Two points about this. I quoted statements and did not attribute them to either of you directly. I feel that if we have something negative to say ( which I admit that I did)
            the post should target the idea being put forward, not the individual advancing it. Note that I also said “these comments”, not these commenters.

            Also, at no point in that post did I say anything at all negative about either you or Mark.
            One post on this thread even refers to employees as “a festering wound”.
            I see a qualitative difference between making a request for the civil expression of ideas
            without name calling or invitations to leave and dehumanizing comments. Perhaps you do not make such a distinction and that is your right.

    1. Mark West

      Employees grousing about morale problems are in themselves part of the problem. They are a festering sore that destroys the well being of the entire workforce. I have had few interactions with City employees over the years where I thought the employee did a bad job. Most have been excellent, but that isn’t the issue. They should all be treated with respect, but no one should caudal poor behavior. Those who come to work with a negative attitude need to move on, so everyone else can get their job done without the ongoing damage brought about by the whining. I am calling out the grousing, and those in the community who enable their discontent, not the excellent workers who are trying to do more with less.

      1. Davis Progressive

        i’m not convinced that this kind of response is helpful. how do you treat people with respect while calling them a festering sore behind their back?

  7. Tia Will


    I agree with you that workers demonstrating a bad attitude in the work place can be very disruptive and reflect poorly on the group, even those who are performing excellently.
    However, I can also envision a post that would make the same points without referring to anyone as ” a festering sore”. I simply do no see how this kind of provocative language gives your point any greater credibility.

    1. Mark West

      As I told someone else this morning, symbolism matters. I think everyone understands that you have to get rid of the sore before you can heal the patient. The descriptor was not necessary, but it got the point across vividly, something the City needs to remember as they try to move the electorate to do something they desperately do not want to do.

        1. Mark West

          Who was I nasty to Tia? What person did I refer to by name as a festering sore? Did I say “Barack Palin is a festering sore on the buttocks of the City of Davis? No, that would have been nasty. I said employees who whine to the public and press about their poor morale need to leave the City’s employ as their poor attitude will act as a festering sore, endangering the well being of the entire workforce and the City.

          You seem to prefer that we enable their whining, since they are just expressing their “ideas which may provoke thoughtful analysis of the problems facing our community.”

          I too expressed my opinion, that the whiners and their enablers, are the problem.

          1. D.D.

            When I was a manager, there was little whining to my face. I sat with each employee and observed them doing their job for about a week. Each employee. And I kept my mouth shut & tried to really just appreciate what their contribution was to our organization Did the past city manager ever do that? Or did he come on board thinking he had the solutions?
            Years later, at another state agency, we had a man who used to work in law enforcement on our IT help desk. I told him repeatedly that he needed to go sit at a local WIC agency and observe the women at work. He refused to do that, yet he thought he could provide these women with superior I.T. support. Yet he had no idea what they did all day!
            Managers must first observe. Then manage. It also doesn’t hurt if you are comfortable in social situations and you get to know your employees a little bit.

          2. Barack Palin

            To Mark West, you said nothing wrong so don’t apologize for anything. In my opnion we have a few posters on here who play the passive aggressive role while acting like they’re holier than thou. It always strikes me as funny how they only attack conservative posts when they think something untoward has been said but look the other way when their fellow liberals say nasty things.

  8. Anon

    I have interacted with many city staffers, and I can think of only one that was not happy, and that was because this individual was downgraded to the mailroom from operating video equipment, so the discontent expressed was perfectly understandable. The rest of the city staffers I have worked with, and there have been numerous ones, are extremely dedicated, highly satisfied with their jobs, and have a very positive attitude about getting things done. I honestly believe they were energized by CM Steve Pinkerton, who wanted the city to see possibilities, not “just say no” to the pubic as happened with the previous city manager. So exactly who are these disgruntled employees the Vanguard is talking about?

    1. D.D.

      Anon, I see no reason for David to name names. No good will come of that. No reason for David to make up a story that ee’s are disgruntled. He has enough other news to cover. I believe what he writes.

        1. D.D.

          If ee’s have a legitimate reason to feel job ennui and David starts naming their exact job position, in a town the size of Davis, that is the same as naming names.
          On the other hand, it would be interesting to hear if there is as much dissatisfaction in higher paid positions as lower paid. What would be your cutoff for salary level, for comparison?

  9. TrueBlueDevil

    I’d like to see numerous examples of what city of Davis employees make, including benefits, to see how much merit are behind these hurt feelings.

    And then compare it to the private sector.

    The comparisons I have seen show that civil servants now make the same, or more, than their private industry counterparts, but where they really clean house are in pensions and other bennies.

    The city now risks hiring a CM who signs a guaranteed contract, hits resistance, and so he / she just goes at the job 3/4 motivated, knowing the fickle citizens hold the cards.

  10. D.D.

    A UCD student who needs the police calls the campus police. A UCD student with a fire in their dorm room will probably et assistance from the campus fire fighters. There are other examples of why the student population is easier to manage than the poplation of:
    …Rocklin, population 59,672, pays its manager $206,999; Brentwood, population 54,741, pays its manager $259,779; Lincoln, population 45,206, pays its manager $231,029; Rancho Cordova, population 67,839, pays its manager $258,914; and Folsom, population 74,014, pays its manager $228,140.”
    Maybe a better comparison would be the cities of Irvine, Riverside, Santa Cruz. All the cities you mention above have no UC system. All their citizens are managed by their city manager. I think that makes their popuation larger by comparison.
    It’s dismaying that UCD students have low voter turnout for the City Council . They also don’t participate in local politics in very large numbers. Perhaps we would have seen more of Davis’ citizens over in Woodland, at the courthouse to support the pepper-sprayed kids, if the UCD students showed an interest in Davis politics. They seem to mostly be governed by the university.
    I have several anecdotes that support this argument but I don’t think it’s necessary

  11. D.D.

    “Work until you are 65 or 70 like the rest of us working stiffs, and then come back to complain.”
    It sounds like you wish you had saved more or invested more in a 401K so that you could also retire at 55?
    Are you angry about their benefits or angry that the economy is not the best right now? You do understand that part of their wages are witheld from their checks, right? Like a forced savings account. Like a tax refund.

  12. Jeff Boone

    Frankly, where are the service improvement opportunities at the DMV from your perspective? Whaer do they fail you?

    The last three times, all three with appointments, two resulted in over 30 minutes wait from my appointment. One they did not have in the computer system even though I had the print out… that was an hour wait.

    Unsmiling grumpy clerks.

    Language barrier causing me to not be able to easily understand what they were telling me.

    Lines of customers with lots of DMV employees doing nothing while only two clerks worked the counters.

    Basically not a customer-service-oriented operation.

    But Davis better than Sacramento. In fact, a lot of people from Sacramento come to the Davis DMV because the Sacramento DMV locations are crappier.

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