Under the surface

The dysfunctional inner workings of the city of Oroville

Something in the city of Oroville isn’t quite right. It’s lurking in corners and under desks and may very well be rooted deep within the foundations of City Hall. And agitating it, trying to sweep it out with the cobwebs, has made it all the more visible.

This specter manifests itself in many ways: in distrust, paranoia, hostility. It turns co-workers against one another; friends against friends.

But despite the efforts of many to sweep out the bad, they always seem to miss a spot.

Allegations against the city’s government range from illegal hiring and firing practices to creating hostile work environments to nepotism.

The Butte County Grand Jury report, released in June, quotes testimony stating department heads used name-calling and backstabbing to get employees to quit.

It charges Sharon Atteberry, city administrator, and David Pittman, fire chief, with being underqualified for their positions—positions appointed by the City Council.

It claims Atteberry violated the city’s nepotism clause because her son and niece both work for the city—and she thus indirectly oversees them.

It shows that Oroville has spent more than $50,000 on outside legal and medical consultants to deal with personnel issues.

There is certainly something amiss in Oroville.

In investigating the grand jury’s findings, in talking with numerous individuals, from former employees to current ones, to supervisors and administrators to the mayor, it became clear that all those involved care a great deal about Oroville. They all have a vision for the city and its inner workings; but when those visions combine, they become jumbled into a blurry mess.

Climbing out of the blur will take time. And money.

Sharon Atteberry could be your mom. She looks younger than her 52 years, with her wavy, light-brown hair pulled half back and bangs partially covering her forehead. She’s friendly, sweet and welcoming, even under the circumstances—the grand jury has accused her of all sorts of things beyond nepotism and being underqualified.

The allegations also include favoritism as well as improperly hiring and firing employees.

“You probably think I’m this horrible, mean person,” she said, half laughing.

She had a point. Between the grand jury report and interviews with several current and former employees, the picture of Atteberry was looking more like Alice in Wonderland‘s “off with their heads!” queen than, well, your mom.

“I’ve seen so much in my time here,” said Atteberry, an Oroville native who started working for the city in the Finance Department in 1979. “I’ve seen city administrators come and go. I know the games. Now it’s my turn to be attacked—I expected it sooner or later.”

The city administrator’s job description requires a bachelor’s degree in business or public administration. Atteberry has no such degree. She jokes about the fact that she’s been called “uneducated,” but it’s clear the joke isn’t funny to her.

In grand jury testimony, city councilmembers said they chose Atteberry for the position because of her decades of service and her knowledge of how the city functioned. Others echoed these sentiments.

“She might not have the degree to fit the job description, but she has a world of experience,” said Liz Eherenstrom, Oroville’s human resources analyst. “She knows what’s going on, what needs to be done, where the problem areas are.”

As for the allegations of violating the city’s nepotism clause, the grand jury did not present any evidence. Atteberry’s son, Wade, the city’s arborist, was hired before she became administrator. Gordon Andoe, the mayor, signs his evaluations, Atteberry said. Her niece is a staff assistant. The nepotism clause refers to employees directly or indirectly supervising an “immediate family member.” Nieces and nephews are not considered immediate family members.

Sharon Atteberry has worked for the city of Oroville for 27 years. She was appointed to the position of city administrator in September 2003.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Atteberry admits there are problems in Oroville’s city government—but they are bigger than she is; they go deep into the heart and history of the city. Her mission, she said, has been to fix them.

“There is dysfunction in every single department,” Atteberry said. “My thing is, get on the bus—because Oroville is changing. So I say, get on the bus or go find another job. We can’t leave you at the curb.”

Atteberry and Ehrenstrom attribute many of the issues to longtime employees who had gotten used to an overly relaxed workplace.

“This administration is making a change where other administrations in the past would not take on the employees,” Ehrenstrom said. “It’s hard to take on employees who have established a behavior that they’ve gotten away with for so long.”

Some of that “behavior” included not showing up to work, conducting personal business on city time, being drunk on the job. And that’s not all. The city had a history of promoting people without giving them adequate training, disgruntled employees had pushed many a department head out of a job, and some had learned to cover up personal or work-related problems as they saw fit.

“I’m trying to break the pattern,” Atteberry said. “It’s not a like/dislike situation around here.”

Amid all this turmoil, Oroville is in a rapid state of development. New subdivisions are springing up right and left. In order to be more “effective and efficient,” the city began to reorganize about three years ago, when Atteberry took office as administrator.

In that process, the city has been in an almost constant state of change—the root of a lot of grievances.

“There was a really great group of baseline employees when I got there,” said one former employee who quit his city job but wished to remain anonymous. “They resisted change, which didn’t help anything.”

A good portion of the grand jury report was dedicated to job descriptions and requirements that have been changed. The report cited one City Council meeting—May 2, 2006—in which the consent agenda included 17 job description changes.

Ehrenstrom described the scenario thusly: “What happened was we hired a new department head and the job descriptions were not changed to reflect a new supervisor. So in that … we started researching. Because of our reorganization we had to change job descriptions to reflect new supervisors that should have been changed 21/2 years ago.”

But a number of changes resulted in people losing their jobs or being demoted, and in certain cases the time and manner in which the changes took place have been called into question.

“There are several employees in various stages of arbitration and lawsuits against the city of Oroville,” the report states. Some of these cases are related to wrongful termination. Others stem from workers'-comp issues—a number of employees are out on work-related stress or medical leave and some on pending “fit to return to duty” clearance.

Between January and September of 2005, the city spent more than $50,000 on outside legal and medical consultants regarding personnel issues. The legal fees included negotiators, counselors and mediators. Medical expenditures included “fit for duty” exams, many of which have taken place in Napa—so the city foots the mileage and hotel bills in addition to the doctor’s fees.

That doctor, Gordon Wolf, deals mostly with police officers. K. Stephen Swenson, an attorney representing a number of current and former city employees, questioned the process of sending employees time and time again to the same doctor for the same “fit for duty” exams.

Atteberry defended the choices to keep some people off work by saying if the doctor said they were not ready to return, then it was best for the city and the employee for him or her to take more time off.

The grand jury recommended that the city send employees to a different doctor, and the city has since chosen a physician closer to Oroville, Atteberry said. The city continues to use outside legal consultants.

Atteberry described some of the city’s dysfunction as due to “a lack of rules, a lack of trust….”

“When you don’t know who you can trust, it’s just total confusion,” she said.

According to the report, the grand jury received testimony that “department heads have used name-calling, yelling, derogatory references, fear, intimidation and increased workloads to create a stressful work environment as ways to terminate an employee.”

Interviews with numerous current and former city employees revealed similar stories of hostile work environments, fear of being fired or demoted and a feeling of being wronged.

“It was a very intimidating atmosphere,” said another former employee. “Things weren’t necessarily done behind closed doors like they should have been. I’m a pretty strong person, and I’m not looking to jump around to jobs, but it just wasn’t a good atmosphere at all.”

Oroville Mayor Gordon Andoe and three others on the City Council will be up for re-election in November.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

In the past two years, she said, she could count more than 20 people who had either quit, been fired or gone out on stress leave from the city.

“It was a very negative environment,” she said.

“It’s a cyclical thing,” Swenson said. “You have a hostile work environment which basically breeds stress, which in turn aggravates a disability, causing more disability.”

In efforts to fix this problem, the city has held seminars and classes on managing, communication, teambuilding. Those sessions used to be held off-site but have since been relocated to City Hall.

One former employee described classes he was required to attend at Butte College.

“Every month we had a course we went to on improving our communication skills. It was a regularly scheduled event,” he said. “We worked on teambuilding exercises, communication exercises, conflict management. And zero of the management attended those meetings. The people who actually needed that training never went.”

Chuck Laughlin, a former senior civil engineer/project manager in the Public Works Department, told a similar story, but from a supervisor’s point of view.

“I was never formally directed to go to [the classes],” Laughlin said. “I found out about them sort of haphazardly. I went and thought, ‘I’m really wasting my time here.’ The environment just wasn’t there. It was a bunch of very angry people who were very fearful.”

He remembered one other supervisor who attended the class. The city is currently trying a different approach. Darrol Lyon, a management consulting specialist, identifies each person’s strengths and weaknesses to pinpoint what kind of worker he or she is. It is meant to help supervisors understand their employees’ behavior and vice versa.

“The unfortunate part is that it seemed that there are individuals there who are interested in creating chaos and injuring the productivity of the employees,” said Laughlin, who now works as a transportation engineer for Caltrans. “People were more worried about who was going to be next, who was going to get the ax, than doing their job. It was total chaos.”

The typical story goes like this: An employee thinks someone “is out to get him.” So he makes a preemptive strike against that person in an effort to avoid being “gotten.” Supervisors, employees, nobody is immune—it becomes friend against friend, every worker for himself. It seems poor communication on all levels is the underlying culprit.

Laughlin was terminated last August, shortly before his one-year anniversary—and shortly before his probationary period was set to end. (City employees are considered probationary for one year. Safety personnel in the Fire and Police departments are exceptions and have an 18-month probationary period.)

During this probation, those employees can be fired without reason, and no explanation is required. The city’s Personnel Rules and Regulations say so but also state that probationary employees shall receive monthly written evaluations of their performance. Laughlin never received an evaluation.

“When I went to work there I was basically promised an evaluation every three months. That’s pretty reasonable to open up the channels of communication,” he said. “I asked them on multiple occasions [for an evaluation], and it just never happened.”

Laughlin, 38, was out on leave for a little more than three months for a serious medical procedure that had some complications. The day he returned to work, he was taken aside by Ehrenstrom and Eric Teitelman, director of community development/public works, and fired. To this day, Laughlin cannot think of a reason why, because he never received an evaluation.

“I never got any reprimands, never got any negative feedback,” Laughlin said. “Normally my evaluations are exceptional, and that’s what I expect of myself. I was working 60-plus hours a week, and I thought, ‘I guess if they’re not giving me [an evaluation], then they must be happy with me.'”

According to Teitelman, the personnel rule regarding probationary evaluations is “not a mandatory policy. It’s really at the discretion of the manager, to give them some guidance to show how they were performing.

“If an employee is not performing to my expectations, I won’t do a performance evaluation,” he added. He did not comment on Laughlin’s particular case.

Another former employee, one who quit, had a similar story about her evaluations.

“When I got my one-year review, it was very good. She [Atteberry] said I was meeting all of her expectations, and I was growing in my job position as she had expected me to,” she said. “Two months later, she told me how I had not met her expectations and she was not happy with my performance and wasn’t going to give me the raise I had deserved after one year.

“How can you get a great review after a year and two months later hear, ‘You didn’t meet my expectations'?”

Probationary periods have been a major issue in the Fire Department. The grand jury reported that instead of the 18 months it should take (which is more than Chico’s 12 months), it has taken between 24 and 30 months for some.

John Gaddie, fire engineer and president of the Local Firefighters No. 2404 union, seeks accountability when it comes to proper training and effectively running the fire station.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

That’s a training issue, said John Gaddie, a fire engineer and president of the Local Firefighters No. 2404 union.

“Training is the heart of the fire service,” he said. “But of the nine new firefighters since 1999, not one has finished probation on time.”

Gaddie is no exception; his probationary period lasted 26 months. He listed off a couple of others who took as long and one who took 31 months.

“We expected comprehensive training,” he said. “We’re young, eager to learn, and our motivation isn’t being utilized.”

In March, the firefighters submitted a letter of “no confidence” in their chief, Pittman, to Atteberry and the City Council. The letter stated that the firefighters believed Pittman was unapproachable and unqualified to be chief and had failed the department in providing adequate training.

The beginning of the letter reads: “Fire Chief Pittman has created a hostile work environment, misused public resources, and neglected the safety and training of the men and women of the city of Oroville Fire Department. All these reasons have led the men and women of the Oroville Fire Department to feel decreased morale, uneasiness and intimidation from Fire Chief Pittman.”

In addition to this, Pittman was cited in the grand jury report as lacking the qualifications for his job. His AA is in automotive technology, not in fire science. Pittman, like Atteberry, has decades of experience that may have compensated for his educational background. The city has been working with Pittman on additional training, Atteberry said.

Pittman, in his written response to the letter of “no confidence” to Atteberry and the City Council, wrote: “This fire chief has never had the intent of creating a hostile working environment. In fact, the statement that this fire chief is unapproachable on any issue is false information and a figment of imagination.”

Pittman listed 35 contributions made to the training and safety of personnel and Oroville’s citizens since he became chief, in 2000.

“I’ve been working to make sure we’re meeting the adequate minimum standards,” Pittman said over a satellite phone from a fire up in the Trinity wilderness. He has created performance standards for all of the positions in the department, he said. He has also tested the firefighters to ensure that his training has met those standards. They do, he said.

Some of the firefighters still feel that their training has been inadequate. Requests for more training were eagerly accepted by the chief, Gaddie said, but then never followed through on.

“What we originally wanted with the letter of ‘no confidence’ was accountability,” Gaddie said. “And it still seems that nothing is being done.”

When the firefighters’ letter was originally submitted, Atteberry rejected it, saying they had gone through the wrong channels. The right channels: a problem-solving committee, agreed upon in the department’s memorandum of understanding, or MOU. Unfortunately, there was no such committee at that time. It has since been created.

Gaddie said the new deputy chief, Nathan Trauernicht, who started with the city July 1, has brought hope to the department.

“He’s shown a lot of initiative; he has great ideas,” Gaddie said. “We’ve been down this road before. We’ll see if he follows through … but I’m hopeful, not skeptical.”

In the end, with all of the evidence set forth by the grand jury and interviews with numerous individuals, the situation seems to come down to this: No one person is at fault here. No one person or one department or one entity can be blamed for all that’s wrong in Oroville’s government.

Atteberry has been trying her best to reorganize a deeply flawed system. She’s held training sessions because she felt many of the employees—and managers—were “underdeveloped.” She’s started to hold people accountable for their actions, or inactions. But how do you fix a system in which so many of the players are either fighting or scared out of their wits?

Atteberry said she brought Pittman’s leadership ability before the council and was told to “work with him—he’s a great guy.” So she brought in Trauernicht as a strong, experienced deputy chief. But that doesn’t really solve the problem.

The council has been accused of prematurely approving changes to job descriptions—approving them before the employee affected has had a chance to sit down and “meet and confer” regarding the changes.

“We’re not trying to circumvent any of the Oroville ordinances,” said Mayor Gordon Andoe. “We’re just in a growth mode and understaffed and we have to move forward. … We try to move as fast as we can, and sometimes that doesn’t satisfy everybody.”

When asked if she thought she’d see a major change in her time as city administrator, Atteberry said a sad “no.” Because it all comes down to politics—she is powerless. She knows some former and current employees are backing candidates for the upcoming council elections, which could have a major effect on how she can do her job.

Atteberry answers to the City Council. She is not authorized to make decisions on her own. The grand jury pointed to this and recommended that the governmental structure of Oroville be changed to one run by a strong city manager/weak council rather than a weak city administrator/strong council.

If the city could bring in an experienced city administrator—or better yet, city manager—from elsewhere and give that person the power to say, “Get on the bus or get out,” and actually back up that statement with the power to terminate, that, at least, would be a step in the right direction.

Atteberry is already on it. She doesn’t want this position forever.

“I want to get all of these departments healthy enough so that I can recruit a top-notch city administrator and go back to being a city clerk,” she said.