New Group and City Duel on Staff Issues

A newly formed, “nonpartisan” group of residents and business owners calling itself “Crossroads South Pasadena” has sent a long, wide-ranging and highly critical letter to all five members of the City Council, citing “growing community concerns about the quality and course of South Pasadena city government’’ and the group’s “many doubts about the direction of city policy.’’

But in an interview with the Review, a city spokesman swiftly minimized the group’s dire diagnosis.

The CSP’s three-page letter to council members — and CC’d to City Manager Stephanie DeWolfe and the city’s commissions — contains 12 signatures, and focuses on three areas in particular: “1) The openness of city leaders to questions and criticism; 2) city financial planning and the wisdom of city spending choices; and 3) stability in the retention of high-quality city staff.’’

The letter points out that four city departments — planning and building; finance; community services; and the library — are currently being run by interim directors, and goes on to say, “Though evidence is limited, owing to the city’s limited public discussion of the topic, we have heard that 50 employees have left the city in the last year — a figure that would represent a loss in the neighborhood of 25 percent of city staff.’’

The letter appears to have hit a nerve at City Hall, which countered some key elements of the CSP’s letter during an interview with the Review.

While the city’s public information officer, John Pope, acknowledged “we don’t deny there have been issues in some departments,” he called the figure of 50 departures “absurd,” and added that the CSP’s letter is, at least in regard to the city’s retention of staff, “built on a faulty premise.”

Pope told the Review that, of the city’s 147 full-time employees, only 16 have left in the last year, along with an additional four interim workers.

He called that turnover rate of about 11 percent “hardly startling,” and added that a 10 percent turnover rate “is considered healthy.”

Prominently, the CSP’s letter quoted then-Interim Director of Planning and Building David Bergman, during the August meeting of the Planning Commission, discussing staffing problems for that agency and citywide.

“We have no planning staff,’’ Bergman said. “We are not able to retain staff. … Every department is understaffed. So we make do as best as we can with the resources that are available. … You should be concerned about the fact that we can’t retain staff.”

Pope, meanwhile, said the city has been “forthcoming” about reorganizing various departments, and plans to announce a new planning director in October. He also said the city will begin recruiting a new finance director after that, and has already reorganized the finance department to include more mid-level positions, creating a “career ladder” more amenable to retaining staff.

Pope also lauded DeWolfe, in her second year as city manager, saying she has “a very high professional standard,” and that in auditing various city departments found “room for significant improvement.”

In its letter, the new group did not present a hierarchy, but did call South Pas resident Chris Bray its “point of contact.”

In addition to Bray, signees included: Janet O. Marshall, Richard Marshall, Micah Zimmermaker, Melissa Flores, Delaine Shane, Russell Shane, Dollie Chapman, Bianca Richards, Anne Bagasao, Brian Bright and Jenny Bright.

The group’s letter stressed what members see as a lack of transparency by the city, and called for certain remedies.

“During a publicly declared budget crisis, what are the costs of high turnover?’’ the letter says. “For example, did the city pay severance to the directors of finance and planning when they left the city after brief service? What were the costs of their early departures? Also, has the city received claims from, or been threatened with litigation by, city employees who have left? And what are the costs of hiring temporary staffing from outside agencies on an emergency basis?

“We ask that the South Pasadena City Council address the city’s staffing crisis – immediately, urgently, openly, in a sustained and serious way, and above all in a discussion that leads to a plan for stability in experienced, capable, high-quality city staff.

“While personnel matters fall under the city manager’s purview, the City Council has oversight authority and a duty to ensure stability. Further, while individual personnel matters are confidential, overall personnel retention and quality, and matters of workplace policy, are not. …

“We strongly suggest that the city manager provide a brief update on personnel recruiting, retention and departures during her comments at every City Council meeting. The council should get a number every time it meets: How many city employees have left since the last meeting.’’

The letter concludes: “We believe you have the best interests of the city in mind, but we’re struggling to understand the direction you intend to lead the city. We hope to see a significant response to these questions from you as a gesture of good faith. What’s the path forward?”


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