Trio of former employees stir it up at city meeting
Former city of Chico employees Mary Fitch, Alicia Meyer and Quené Hansen have become regulars at City Council meetings—and a thorn in the side of the new executive team. And during the council’s regular meeting Tuesday evening (Oct. 1), the trio leveled some pretty hefty accusations about the manner in which the city conducted its layoffs over the summer.
Specifically, the women say that City Manager Brian Nakamura—along with Assistant City Manager Mark Orme and Administrative Services Director Chris Constantin—breached personnel rules within the municipal code to retain certain favored employees.
“One can only hope that it was council’s ignorance of—rather than its complicity in—the flagrant disregard for those personnel rules that allowed [Nakamura] and his executive team to put personalities before positions in the July layoffs,” said Fitch during the unusually short meeting’s public-comment segment.
In her allotted three minutes at the podium, Fitch went on to cite multiple alleged cases of favoritism that took place during staffing reductions of the city’s administrative-employee pool. She said that the city did not follow the rules, and that several administrative employees who should have been bumped (that is, displaced by employees with greater seniority) were reclassified and thus shielded during the layoff process.
Fitch claimed that Constantin spoke openly about how he was going to protect certain staff members from bumping by those very means. She pointed to a May 9 memo calling for the reclassification of four administrative positions as evidence of the wrongdoing. That reclassification came with minor changes to job descriptions, though nothing of substance, she said.
“Word spread quickly [through City Hall], since removing them from the bumping order would impact every single move within the admin layoffs,” she continued.
Hansen spoke next and explained how—after the second meeting with a City Employees’ Association representative over the matter of reclassification—Constantin agreed to change the reclassifications to internal recruitments. She also noted how someone in Constantin’s office—in a memo to staff announcing the proposed creation of the new positions—made a point of stating that, “While the employee groups have a right to comment on the proposed changes, the city manager has the sole authority to modify the classification plan.”
“This was a flagrant end run around the code, and employees … were disgusted to see it happening just days before layoff notices [went out],” Hansen said.
Last up was Alicia Meyer, who also took the city leaders to task. She cited a number of memos related to the recruitment process and how, despite applications from qualified senior staff members, all of the incumbents retained their posts.
She pointed out that one of the protected employees—someone in Constantin’s office who she says is the least senior member of the whole administrative staff—had been promoted from administrative assistant to HR analyst and given a pay raise, while one of the senior analysts had been bumped two job-classification levels and taken a 25 percent pay cut.
“Mr. Constantin surely has mastered the art of creating a hostile work environment,” Meyer said.
Constantin took exception to the women’s comments, and defended his reorganization efforts. He said he met with union representatives and made compromises during the process. Nakamura was largely silent during the meeting, but he did say that legal counsel was consulted to be certain the rules were being followed. And in fact, the union never filed a grievance, City Attorney Lori Barker pointed out.
Earlier in the meeting, Hansen took part in other controversial discussions related to the more than $3 million deficit in the capital-projects fund—known as Fund 400—and a related user-fee study that was supposed to have come to the council level back in 2012 but didn’t make it before the panel until this year.
Many questions have arisen in the wake of learning that Fund 400 is deep in the red. One of them is whether staff, including Hansen, erred in releasing the draft study to the development community before the report got to the council. While a consultant hired by the city has indicated that shouldn’t have happened, Hansen maintains that doing so is standard practice. In light of the lack of clarity, Councilwoman Mary Goloff asked the city manager for a chronology of events surrounding that matter.
Councilman Mark Sorensen noted that the city had paid the consultant some $37,000 for work on the report with the goal of better aligning revenues with actual operating expenses. He noted that it came to light only this past February.
Sorensen had done some investigation on his own, and explained that he believes the study was deliberately not brought to the council because it indicated that the general fund was going to take a $2.5 million hit, since the city could not possibly charge enough for the overhead getting dumped on Fund 400, among other funds.
“It would have severely slowed our accumulation of debt in those funds, and I think that’s why it was withheld—so the city could continue to rack up the debt,” he said.