When the City of Davis hired City Manager Dirk Brazil, he made the decision to bring in former city manager John Meyer, a long time Davis resident who had just retired as Vice Chancellor of UC Davis, to review aspects of the City of Davis Operations.
He writes, “After several preliminary meetings with the City Manager, we agreed on a review that would focus on three principal areas: organizational structure, organizational climate and customer service focus. As mentioned in my original proposal, this review does not include the two public safety departments and no detailed recommendations are made related to the Police and Fire Departments, although I do include a significant general comment related to the Fire Department.”
He warns that this information is gained from a series of “staff interviews” and, therefore, “it should not be thought of as a reflection of ‘truths’ but rather a collection of observations and impressions.”
He adds, “A priority of mine was to be prompt in delivery of this material, allowing some recommendations to be considered as part of the city’s budget process.”
The backdrop here is the “Great Recession,” which he notes was “preceded by a period of such great exuberance that many neglected the oft used financial disclosure that ‘current trends are not a guarantee of future performance.’” As such governments and their employees “were expecting that continued high rates of investment return would fully fund pension and other like programs. In addition, robust benefit obligations had often grown over time due to these trends.”
However, “As more scrutiny was applied to the financial support for such benefits, some were often found to be of questionable long-term viability.”
His overall impression is that “city staff remain dedicated to public service.” He writes, “This is not to say they are not highly critical of some of the methods and style used to achieve budget reductions. Indeed, they seem to fully recognize larger economic trends and that expenditure reductions were necessary. However, most individuals were critical of the manner in which budget reductions were communicated and that there seemed to be more outreach with community than with staff.”
He noted that significant accomplishments were made as “the City made substantial progress on many important issues in recent years. Despite the resulting internal hardships, budget reductions were made that were essential to improving financial stability.” He cites specifically capital projects like surface and wastewater treatment, renewed attention to deferred maintenance, and economic development.
On the other hand, he notes the lack of stability and tenure in executive leadership eroding the culture. For instance, over the last fifteen years, the city has had seven interim and permanent managers, while in the previous 34 years it had just four.
He writes, “This is very worrisome in that an organization’s culture and values cannot take root with such constant transition in leadership. In addition, if change is desired, those not supportive may simply decide to ‘wait it out’ given that there will likely be new leadership in a year or two. Developing a unified and supportive tone between the City Council and City Manager is essential in successfully communicating the desired values and culture for the City organization.”
He writes that there is “cautious optimism” in the organizational climate but “swift and decisive actions are required to demonstrate values and commitment.”
Mr. Meyer warns that “council intervention has confused the council-manager model.” He writes, “While Davis has long had active and involved City Councils, many staff believe that some on previous Councils have gone beyond a policy and oversight function to have increasing direct dealings with staff members. This could also be a symptom of high turnover with City Managers, where administrative leadership does not have continuity and, therefore a Council member may step in.”
John Meyer also notes that, while there is acknowledgement of the need for budget reductions, the “perceived lack of engagement with staff has left widespread bitterness.” Mr. Meyer adds, “There is a widely held view that limited communication to staff on budget reductions aggravated an already difficult situation.”
As examples he cites:
- Some senior managers first learned their positions were eliminated when organization charts were published within the budget document that did not include their positions. No one personally informed these individuals of this circumstance before it was made public.
- Certain parks staff were laid off the day after a parks tax passed.
- Frustration was expressed over the amounts paid for outside labor negotiator, recent city hall reconfiguration, senior management positions and consultants while staff was being laid off.
- On one day, several long-term personnel within Public Works, representing over 90 years of combined service, left the city due to layoffs and downsizing. No expression of gratitude or appreciation for such long periods of service was ever provided by management.
He talks about the need “to rebuild relationship and trust.” Moreover, he suggests they reset their approach to negotiations.
One point he makes is that the city’s budget situation necessitated budget reduction and, given that the bulk of the budget is compensation, “this inevitably means reductions or caps on salary and benefits.”
Those employee associations “that believe they were the most understanding of city needs also believe they suffered the greatest degree of reduction while less cooperative groups fared better.”
Mr. Meyer continues, “Clearly, negotiations, especially in times of reductions, are likely to become divisive. It is important for the Council and Manager to recognize the hangover that exists from recent negotiation processes. It may be that the current environment allows for a renewed pledge that negotiations, to the extent possible, should strive to meet mutual objectives.”
He suggests, moving forward, that the “City Manager [strive] to establish a relationship and ‘human face’ with each employee association. It should be assumed that if negotiations are contracted out, that the content, style and conduct of those negotiations will reflect on the City Council and Manager.”
He also noted that there is belief that there has been a lack of focused vision. He writes, “It is widely believed that goals established by previous City Councils have been vast and lacked focus. They are thought to be a collection of aspirations rather than a framework that establishes true priorities. Staff often stated that especially in a period of staff reductions, more projects and tasks seemed to arise.”
This is an overview of the assessment of the situation; the remainder of the report has some recommendations about reform and change.
—David M. Greenwald reporting