Meyer Report on Davis City Hall Describes Fragile Work Environment

City-Hall-SlideWhen 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

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. DT Businessman

    A bird’s-eye-view report such as the Meyer report, that doesn’t get bogged down in the weeds or the politics, is long overdue.  Many thanks to John Meyer for his civic service.


    -Michael Bisch, Davis Downtown Prez

    1. Davis Progressive

      except that’s not what it is.  he doesn’t do a full investigation – by his own admission.  he creates a report based entirely on the employee perspective without any kind of impartial analysis to see if they are correct.  and he avoids public safety meaning he’s avoiding the 8 million pound elephant in the room.

      1. hpierce

        I disagree, yet agree.  I agree that it is a “birds-eye view”, and agree that it is not a “full investigation”.  I disagree that it should be ‘discounted’.  John definitely “pulled some punches”.  He identified tips of dangerous icebergs.  I’d love to see his notes and rough drafts.  Hope the CM gets to see at least some of those, even if  “off the record”.

        Among other “pulled punches”, include the fact that St Pinkerton and his ‘inner circle’ orchestrated not one, but two CH remodels during his brief tenure.  The first was to create his ‘bunker’.  The second was to divorce PW engineering staff from the PW field function, under the guise of “one-stop shopping”, that could have been accomplished with Skype and/or other technology.  Those responsible for implementing the two remodels were told to ‘absorb’ costs in other programs, so the costs could not be traced.

        1. Davis Progressive

          i didn’t say discounted, but i certainly alluded to it, so i get your comment.  i know you have identified the remodel by pinkerton as problematic, and you don’t like the reorg for pw works, but to me this report addressed a very narrow focus – employee moral as perceived by employees – i’m not sure i agree that’s the biggest issue we are dealing with.  i think the biggest issue we face is how to continue our level of city services in an era without an abundance of resources.

        2. Topcat

           i think the biggest issue we face is how to continue our level of city services in an era without an abundance of resources.

          Yes, that is the issue.  Another way of stating this that I would like to see recognized is that we need to “live within our means”; something that my parents taught me all those many years ago as a little Topcat.

        3. Davis Progressive

          topcat – i think everyone needs to recognize that the era of austerity is over in davis.  reading the john meyer report has put fancy window dressing on the excuse to crank up the employee experience.  as david has aruged several times on here, employee groups are not going to be satisfied without increases to compensation.  john dances around the issue very well, but we know that’s the over big elephant in the room.

        4. hpierce

          DP… there are “none so blind than those who do not see”… if it fits… if the morale issues (not moral issue) are addressed, there will be greater employee acceptance of “frugality”.

        5. Davis Progressive

          hpierce – i believe we are to some extent here, talking past each other.  i don’t disagree with your point – but i distrust the motivations of those running city hall.

        6. hpierce

          DP… John Meyer is not running City Hall.  IMO there are those of influence in CH who should be distrusted.  The new CM is not one of them.  Follow the ‘power’.

        7. Topcat

           i think everyone needs to recognize that the era of austerity is over in davis.

          If that’s the case, then we don’t need a new industrial park to provide more revenue.

        8. Davis Progressive

          “John Meyer is not running City Hall.  IMO there are those of influence in CH who should be distrusted.  The new CM is not one of them.  Follow the ‘power’.”

          imo, the new cm is a pawn of the power, not the power.  but that doesn’t exonerate him.

        1. hpierce

          DP… you obviously don’t know John very well.  He sees things 360 degrees.  He has great analytical skills.  I can pretty much would assure you that anything he wrote and submitted was intentional, but ‘measured’ so as not to condemn, but to inform where the CM needs to look, to be successful.

        2. hpierce

          Glad you read the report, DP.  That’s why I posted it, so folk could read it.  Also good to understand it, and its implications.  Suspect you were wearing “filters” as you read it.

  2. Miwok

    nice report by Mr Meyers, it could also apply word for word about UCD. Maybe he sees the forest and the trees.

    When the people who do the work are summarily laid off and not acknowledged for any work or even long service to the community, service can slip. The University did the same things to their senior staff, sometimes a year or two short of twenty years. The services were then privatized and IF the people were hired back to their jobs, they got half or less of the former wage.

    What an employee needs is security that their job is valued. Instead, you lose institutional knowledge and experience, and contracting out negotiations is one way to say “screw you”. Most jobs, like the CM, are advertised as “Limited” and “at will” so they can shuffle who they want when they want. Management usually does not even have the skillset to evaluate performance of their people, some HR kid does it for them, who is even more ignorant.

    In a town full of PhDs and MBAs this place should be hummin.

  3. Frankly

    Several points.

    One – Unions

    Unions create the us against them firewall between labor and management.  Labor, you get your fat paycheck and fatter benefits, and it comes at a cost.  Accept it or demand a different labor model.

    Two – Local Politics

    The city manager and other staff managers have been pawns in the politics of our CC members.  Primarily those seeking to launch their larger political career through their Davis position.   The relationship between staff and management is one that requires building.  Get rid of a manager and all the building crumbles and must be rebuilt.  Get rid of a manager in tough times, and it sinks below ground and must be rebuilt.

    Three – State Politics

    State employees are fighting to keep their unsustainable benefits and state politicians have responded by cutting contributions to county and city government.  Keep voting for the candidate in bed with the state employee unions, and it will keep hurting.

    Four – Denial

    Part of the bad morale is due simply to the disappointment that the unsustainable public sector gravy train is unraveling.  Anyone with their eyes and ears open would have figured this out a long time ago.  As the party comes to close and everyone gets back to normal sustainability, there are going to be some unhappy people that stick around and complain.  Those people can end up being the source of morale problems for the entire organization that needs to move on.

    1. Davis Progressive

      several points.

      there is one union in city hall and strangely the report didn’t address that.

      second, agreed on the problem of larger political career.  can’t believe that’s endemic to davis.  the problem right now in davis is that city managers are leaving quickly and in short order.   that means that the politicians have more longevity.  look at rochelle swanson – she has had – emlen, navazio, pinkerton, rogers, and now brazil since 2010.  five years, five city managers.  that’s the problem.  there can be no independent powerbase.

      now look at our current city manager – dirk brazil.  he worked for lois wolk which meant he worked for craig reynolds, which means he’s tied at the hip to dan wolk.  that’s the problem.  right there. no one wants to deal with that problem becuase he’s a nice guy and has lived in davis a long time.  who is to blame for that problem?  rochelle.  she was clearly the swing vote.

      for a brief time, the power base was cut off and the other points you made didn’t matter but it took a core of independent councilmembers and an outsider in city hall to do it and what happened?   they revolted.  we get what we deserve!

      1. hpierce

        “… there is one union in city hall and strangely the report didn’t address that.”  Duh.  Anyone familiar with the City knows that, and I’ve pointed it out many times in my posts.  

        “…  an outsider in city hall to do it …”  You mean the guy who helped orchestrate the financial problems in Stockton, then went to Manteca, and when that got messed up, came to Davis as a “savior”?  Here, he just mucked up trust in the CM office.

        I’ll make a ‘side bet’… he ratcheted back retiree medical, but left in  time to make sure he was fully covered [probably at risk from Stockton/Manteca service time].  I’ll give you 2:1 odds.

        1. Miwok

          The CM, (or elected official) who writes the rules never has to live under them.. I disagree with that. They should always get the same as the people they work for, who work for them.

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