City Manager Discusses Employee Morale, the Fire Department, and Economic Development in Follow Up to Meyer Report

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City Manager Dirk Brazil at his first meeting
City Manager Dirk Brazil at his first meeting

On Friday, the Vanguard joined new City Manager Dirk Brazil and former City Manager John Meyer, who, coming off retirement at UC Davis, sat down with the incoming city manager and asked how he could help. Dirk Brazil said that he wanted to do some sort of assessment, to find out where the city was at this point in time, but he didn’t have the time or the background to be able to do it.

What emerges out of the Meyer report, according to Mr. Brazil, “is a clear roadmap for the future.” He said, “What really comes out of that report is how much organizational and workforce work is needed.” He said they want to know “how can things operate better,” but the key point, he said, is “we’re already doing a lot of what’s in there.”

The key thing from both Dirk Brazil and John Meyer is that this was not intended to be an exhaustive report. Rather, they wanted to look at three aspects of the city: Climate, Organizational Structure and Customer Service. This was not a wholesale review of the city, but rather a review of three things.

John Meyer told the Vanguard that his biggest surprise is that, despite all of the morale issues and organizational problems that he identified in his report, a lot of people are still dedicated to public service and still carry the banner.

“The ranks of city staff remain full of individuals still fully committed to public service and dedicated to finding efficient ways to continue the delivery of services,” John Meyer wrote in his report.

“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. Staff seems committed to public service despite their concern with historic leadership,” he continued.

“While need for budget reductions [are] widely acknowledged, perceived lack of engagement with staff has left widespread bitterness,” John Meyer wrote in his report. “Staff seem to fully understand the economic forces that required budget reductions. However, there is a widely held view that limited communication to staff on budget reductions aggravated an already difficult situation. Certainly, there was urgency to implement budget reductions, but some events have achieved the status of legend within the organization.”

It is perhaps easy to read into this report a wholesale criticism by staff of the previous leadership. But John Meyer at the same time made it clear that, while the report is critical of current climate, and he sees clearly the need to have open conversations with employees and to listen to their concerns, this should not necessarily be read as a criticism of the past practices.

Given the magnitude of the economic meltdown, the city had to act fast and he fully believes if some of the actions were not taken, the city wouldn’t be in recovery. So, while he may have supported some of the organizational changes – particularly the big merger involving Community Development – he described it as being effected on paper, but on the ground it never worked as intended.

As he wrote, “In recent years, the department heads for Public Works and Community Development have reported to a position entitled General Manager. This position was to oversee all development and infrastructure including capital projects. While there is merit in this approach, such coordination never materialized.”

With the General Manager position now vacant, Mr. Meyer suggests that “the city would be better served by these department heads reporting directly to the City Manager and resources from the General Manager position being reallocated to needs within these departments.”

John Meyer explained that the focus of this report was on general government but, given the turmoil over the fire department, it seemed a little surprising that he avoided public safety altogether. However, John Meyer was one of the leading proponents of joint management when he was a Vice Chancellor at UC Davis. He had overseen the merger, and he has a close relationship with Chief Nathan Trauernicht.

As he put it, he did not believe he would be a neutral actor on the fire side and, therefore, he limited his focus.

Dirk Brazil, however, told the Vanguard that he believes that moral is improving on fire. He said that there are been some new hires that have helped to change the makeup of the organization. While the previous City Manager was instrumental in implementing unhappy policy changes and imposing the last, best and final offer on the bargaining unit, Mr. Brazil represents a new face.

The Vanguard asked the City Manager directly about whether joint management sticks past July, and he said that if he had to guess, he thinks it will. Mr. Brazil also seemed genuinely committed to the idea of regional collaboration. “We have to look at things collaboratively, regionally.” He said, “It is short-sided to look at it” in isolation.

John Meyer pointed out that fire already has to have collaboration. When a fire happens, the local fire department “needs the cavalry from other agencies. It’s all about mutual aid.” He said it is better to train the same way.

The final portion of our discussion related to economic development. John Meyer in his report was quite adamant on economic development, “I believe the City should ‘double-down’ on its investment in economic development activities.”

“The City is developing a reputation of supporting business development,” he said. “A number of major businesses have chosen to locate in Davis. Should the City now dim its focus and investment in economic development, that action will be broadcast throughout the region by your competitors.”

John Meyer elaborated on the point which is that the “City has made phenomenal progress on Economic Development.” He made a point that he doesn’t think got enough regional play – the city of Davis beat out Chicago to get Mori Seiki. “It’s on an amazing trajectory,” he said. But he warned that we “have to make sure the foot is on the accelerator. The region is very competitive.”

The Vanguard asked the new city manager if there was a change in approach with economic development, moving away from the innovation parks and back towards the downtown. His answer was “not really.” He said the issue is “how do you treat them all fairly?” “How do you support the peripheral parks and still make the downtown” a critical part of the program?

He said that because the city put so much into innovation parks at the staff level, they had to reassess the allocation of resource. He is also concerned about their ability to manage this. “We have never dealt with anything even close to this,” he said. “Seven million square feet.”

So, he said, we have to “figure out the balance.” He is concerned that the staff, which has been beaten up and cut back, is suddenly being asked to manage seven million square feet of space.

His biggest concern with staff needs mostly concern the planning and public works side. He said that they can never have enough resources, but do not have enough to keep up with the new demand.

The staffing for the project, however, he feels has been solved – a lot of it for the projects will be funded by the developers and he specifically mentioned confidence in the leadership of Mike Webb and Bob Clarke.

Finally, an interesting point that came out of the report was the lack of stability and tenure in the city manager position. As John Meyer wrote, “In the last fifteen years, Davis has had seven interim and permanent managers, while in the previous thirty four years it had four.”

It is actually worse than that – since Rochelle Swanson was elected, just under five years ago in June 2010, we have had five city managers: Bill Emlen, Paul Navazio (interim), Steve Pinkerton, Gene Rogers (interim), and now Dirk Brazil.

That lack of stability, Mr. Meyer called “very worrisome in that an organization’s culture and values cannot take root with such constant transition in leadership.”

While that is a trend, neither John Meyer nor Dirk Brazil could point to the problem or the cure for it.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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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22 thoughts on “City Manager Discusses Employee Morale, the Fire Department, and Economic Development in Follow Up to Meyer Report”

  1. PhilColeman

    Here’s a little free training tip on Communications, in any form. It is not just what is said or written. It’s also what is NOT said. Invariably, the silence or omission has more credibility than the overt expressions. This was particularly true in John’s report, as evidenced by the obligatory platitudes, and pabulum. Forget the “feel good” stuff. If everything was good, there would be no need for a report. A parade of city managers coming and going is a PROBLEM. A BIG PROBLEM.

    John is a master at subtlety. He actually said a lot but you really have to “read between the lines.” Having worked with John for many years, I saw many cues in the brevity and limited scope what was more like a “non-assessment report.” The City is in a far greater mess than I suspected, and I now know exactly where the problems lie. John won’t say it publicly, nor will I.

    Were anybody to speak to John “off the record” and give him full assurance that he’d never be traced back to the source, he’d burn your ears off.

    1. hpierce

      Amen.  As I said previously, I’d love to peek at Meyer’s notes/rough draft(s). He did a great job of reporting out at the ‘bird-eye-view’, although I suspect he actually got close enough to monitor breathing and pulse rate.  One must use discretion in divulging medical information to anyone other than the ‘patient’.

      The turnover of CM’s is more a symptom, than a cause, but it can lead to a ‘chicken and egg’ thing.

    2. Tia Will

      Phil

      The City is in a far greater mess than I suspected, and I now know exactly where the problems lie. John won’t say it publicly, nor will I.”

      I see your statement itself as a huge part of the problem. If anyone thinks they “know exactly where the problems lie” but will not reveal the problem, then they certainly cannot expect those of us who have no inside knowledge to be aware of those problems, now can they ?  So, if you know, and cannot or will not say, then you are aiding and abetting those who are creating the problem by giving them a free pass. We can hardly be expected to act to change what we are unaware of.

       

      1. hpierce

        Tia… what someone “knows’ to be fact, based on knowledge, experience, and judgement, is different from what they can ‘prove” in either the court of public opinion or of law.  The ‘aiding and abetting” snarky comment is WAY out of line.

        1. Tia Will

          hpierce

          I do not think my comment was at all out of line. If someone wants to say that they believe that they know what the problem is, that is fine, but inadequate. If they say that they “know” and then are unwilling to put their knowledge forward, what have they really done but made a smug comment about their superior knowledge without adding anything at all to help with the problem. I regret that you did not like my tone, but I will stand by my comment. To say that you know what the problem is, and then to choose to do nothing about it, is in my opinion part of the problem.

        2. Alan Miller

          If they say that they “know” and then are unwilling to put their knowledge forward, what have they really done but made a smug comment about their superior knowledge without adding anything at all to help with the problem.

          Amen, Sister Tia!  Amen!

      2. Don Shor

        Top-heavy on administration, some departments deeply affected by negative outlooks and highly resistant to change. Something like that.

        1. hpierce

          Actually, Don, that would be some powerful individuals within some departments either resistant to change (JMeyer was torpedoed by some during his City 2000 initiative), or seeking to make changes in their ‘own image and likeness’.  The negative outlooks often come from those on the “receiving end” of the consequences of the misuse of ‘power’.

      3. Barack Palin

        Tia Will, I feel the same way.  There’s a problem but no one is willing to divulge it for whatever the reason.  So what good does that do and where does that leave us, the taxpaying public?

      4. Davis Progressive

        interesting response – to me it seems that things are better than i feared.  i guess we won’t get any of phil’s insight, which is too bad.

    3. Topcat

      The City is in a far greater mess than I suspected, and I now know exactly where the problems lie. John won’t say it publicly, nor will I.

      It sounds like we have the problem of the fable we all learned as children of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.  I would sure like to see some honesty and truthfulness about the City’s problems rather than all the political “happy talk” we’ve been getting.

      1. Miwok

        Not if it costs you your retirement pension, TopCat, or character assassination on a professional level. I tried to be honest with an employer and it cost me my job, but they could not take my pension and it only pissed them off they could not take that. PhilColeman is spot on.
        Communication is key, and it goes from the top to the bottom, not reading about it in a press release or a letter from someone without the guts to face you when they tell you the bad news.

    4. Frankly

      How about another free training tip on organizational leadership and employee motivation fundamentals. 

      When a leader is removed the people in the organization reorder to fill the void of decision-making responsibility and authority.  Then when the new leader is hired, these people get pushed back into a different order and organization.  This type of volatility of leadership causes a work culture to develop organizational performance dysfunction.

      Higher authority must delegate decision authority.  Lower lever staff will not take initiative for decisions that they are not confident that they are vested with authority to make.  And when leadership keeps changing, more staff hunker down to do the minimum for fear that the new guy will have a different opinion and might not like certain initiative.

      So, think of frequent management changes as sort of  ratcheting down the level of initiative that staff would otherwise demonstrate.  The staff can be talented and good people, but develop a level of risk aversion about stepping outside the narrowest definition of their role.  It takes a lot of reassurance and cajoling by the new manager to develop new confidence in staff to take initiative on things that need to get done.

      Unfortunately, the effort required to re-train ad re-motivate some of the staff will be futile.  And those people still dug in will impact the entire work culture… especially if they are senior staff.

      All of this stuff takes tremendous time and skill for new management to deal with.  And while it is being dealt with, there is little time for new projects and initiatives.  But new management is eager to make their mark and will want to push the new projects and new initiative.   And for the new manager to be successful, he/she will have to form a new “team” that requires cutting some of the old team members, and reorganizing around those that are willing and capable to demonstrate the required performance and initiative.

      Unfortunately in the public sector, labor is protected from these types of changes.  And so the organization suffers a much lower capability to take on new projects and new initiatives.

      That is where we find ourselves today.  We know we need to ramp up for economic development, but our city staff have been beat down by all the management changes, and current management lacks the ability to form a new team.

  2. Davis Progressive

    my takeaway at least from what is reported here:

    1. things have improved economically, we did what we had to to address the fiscal crisis, now we need to shore up the employee front – makes sense.

    2. joint management is going to stay in place and the city manager believes in shared services – great

    3. economic development will be more balanced but we will double-down on our ed

    the cm certainly seems to be gaining his footing.  now maybe he will see that the vanguard isn’t quite teh boogeyman he might have previous thought.

    1. Topcat

      3. economic development will be more balanced but we will double-down on our ed

      I’m not sure what this means.  Does it mean that we should not approve a new peripheral industrial park?  And what does “double down on ed” mean?

  3. Anon

    Great article!

    What emerges out of the Meyer report, according to Mr. Brazil, “is a clear roadmap for the future.” He said, “What really comes out of that report is how much organizational and workforce work is needed.

    When the city reduced the workforce by 20% (which was fiscally necessary), and expected staff to still deliver the same level of service with significantly fewer employees, there was bound to be serious problems with the quality of service and/or employee morale.  Fortunately economic times are not quite as dire, yet the city still needs to continue to be extremely fiscally vigilant in case of future economic downturns.

    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.” 

    Had the city manager communicated staff layoffs in a more positive manner (how does anyone take being fired/demoted well?), I guarantee it would have been known about in short order, and the public backlash would have been tremendous.  Remember when tree trimming was outsourced and the city’s tree trimming staff let go, and the humongous public outcry that caused?

    With the General Manager position now vacant, Mr. Meyer suggests that “the city would be better served by these department heads reporting directly to the City Manager and resources from the General Manager position being reallocated to needs within these departments.

    Good, one less managerial position to fund, which should help the city’s bottom line.  However, if the City Manager doesn’t stick around, citizens may wish there had been a General Manager for the department heads to report to.

    The Vanguard asked the City Manager directly about whether joint management [of the Fire Dept.] sticks past July, and he said that if he had to guess, he thinks it will.” 

    Excellent – shared management of the Davis Fire Dept & the UCD Fire Dept is working well (I’m sure it is not perfect – but nothing is), and saving the city money.  Sounds like it is here to stay, despite resistance from some firefighters/others and despite rumors to the contrary.

    He said that because the city put so much into innovation parks at the staff level, they had to reassess the allocation of resource. He is also concerned about their ability to manage this…The staffing for the project, however, he feels has been solved – a lot of it for the projects will be funded by the developers and he specifically mentioned confidence in the leadership of Mike Webb and Bob Clarke.

    Both Mike Webb and Bob Clarke are outstanding leaders, and I have no doubt will do excellent work.  Note staffing for a lot of the projects will be funded by the developers themselves.  As you can see, the city is working diligently towards making the innovation parks a reality.  I have confidence the city will do just that, despite the inimical opposition that is bound to crop up.

    1. Alan Miller

      Since Anon doesn’t play here anymore, this could not have been posted by Anon.  Note also that Phil Coleman knows exactly what is wrong inside the City government, obviously wants to tell us really, really, really badly, but can’t.  Note that the above post may be exactly what is wrong (and right) with City government.  Therefore, it is my theory that Phil Coleman is spoofing Anon’s alias and has just revealed everything he wanted to tell us, but couldn’t.

      Pardon me while I adjust my tinfoil hat.

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