Shake-up at City Hall

Employees running scared following Rucker’s ‘retirement’

It’s been a little over three weeks since John Rucker boxed up his personal items and walked out of City Hall. One day he was the assistant city manager, the next day he was “retired.”

It’s not supposed to happen like that. Most valued, long-term employees who retire are honored with a special presentation before a City Council meeting. The mayor praises their service and reads a proclamation and everybody stands up and claps. That didn’t occur with Rucker.

Exactly why he quit remains a mystery to all but a few people, and they’re not talking. Not on the record, anyway.

I’ve heard from a number of city employees lately, some via anonymous emails and letters. They’re not happy with the way things are going since Brian Nakamura became city manager last fall. Rucker’s sudden and unexplained departure was the key event, but it was symptomatic of deeper problems, they say—poor communication, for one, and a lack of respect on Nakamura’s part for the painful process city employees have gone through as they’ve adjusted to hard times.

As one high-level employee put it to me, “There’s a different vibe here. You can just feel it in the air.” Morale, she said, is in the tank.

At-will employees—those managers not protected by a union—fear they’ll lose their jobs, and their worry may be well-founded. At the City Council meeting Tuesday (Jan. 29), Nakamura proposed a dramatic reorganization of the city’s staffing structure, and he seems to have the council’s support on it. (See my report on page 11.)

Nakamura came in with a handicap: He was the first outsider ever to take on the city manager job. The Rucker matter occurred before he’d had time to build up trust with city staff, to whom Rucker was like family.

Those who know what actually happened—City Council members, in particular—say Rucker’s leaving was a necessary parting of the ways. A couple of them were sufficiently specific to convince me they were right.

In an interview, Nakamura said he and Rucker agreed that Rucker would make the “retirement” announcement to city staff, which he did by email. Nakamura didn’t think it was his place to add to Rucker’s explanation, which was so vague as to be a non-explanation.

I think that was a mistake. Mysteries produce misunderstanding. Nakamura should have gathered together his staff and told them, in so many words, “Hey, there were irreconcilable differences. John and I agreed it wasn’t working. No blame, no shame.” People need reassurance.

At this point, Nakamura says, he’s hopeful that staff will rally ’round when they see that he’s clarifying the city’s direction going forward.

As one senior employee told me, “The train isn’t off the tracks. If it weren’t for what happened with John Rucker, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.”

That was before he knew about Nakamura’s reorganization plan, however. The train may still be on the tracks, but some people may be thrown off the train.