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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Independent Investigation of Grand Jury Report on the Fire Department Pushed Back Until January

Late on Tuesday night Bill Emlen recommended a change to the calendar on Ombudsman Bob Aaronson's report on the fire department. Mr. Emlen described it as a workload issue pushing the report back from the December 16 council meeting and instead to be carried over until January.
“I will talk with the council members individually regarding the review of the report.”
In addition to the workload issue, Mr. Emlen acknowledged the complexity of dealing with personnel matters.
"A lot of that has to with how we sort of sift through the personnel related areas versus the core issues that are related to the grand jury report."
However, he reassured council that this had nothing to do with withholding a major personnel decision. And he re-emphasized this is primarily about work load issues.

Councilmember Greenwald asked what Bill Emlen could share with the elected leaders of the city.

Mr. Emelen:
"What I’m telling you is that I’d like to have that discussion in a different form because I think we are at this point probably going beyond what we should in this form tonight."
Council was accepting of the delay though everyone expressed the desire to see this to a completion.

Mayor Pro Tem Don Saylor:
"I’m looking forward to getting done with this, because it has been far too long for everybody concerned.”
Stephen Souza agreed:
"I too would rather see it as soon as possible, it has been sitting around for a considerable amount of time… It was slated to be here tonight, it’s now on our long range calendar slated to be here on the 16th, the next meeting, and apparently you’re proposing to put it off until January.”
Council was more sharply divided on the issue as to whether they should see the full report or a redacted version.

Both councilmembers Sue Greenwald and Lamar Heystek were adamant about seeing the full version.

Councilmember Greenwald:
“I’d like to get a council consensus that we have access to all the information. The way our form of government works is that we’re responsible when we’re elected. Whereas on the phone you told me that we’re not responsible for personnel, we are ultimately, the buck stops with us. We’re responsible through you, but we can’t evaluate how well you’re doing your job with personnel if we don’t have access to all the information.”
She continued:
“I just think we should as a matter of principle, as a matter of procedure. It’s a matter of accountability in government.”
Councilmember Heystek requested of City Attorney Harriet Steiner that she explain any legal grounds for withholding of information from the council in writing.
"I do agree with Councilmember Greenwald, it is important for us to see the work product of the Ombudsman, this is the first major test of our Ombudsman and we’ve paid over $35,000 I believe for this work product, and I believe I deserve to see as a councilmember the contents. No one is wanting to pry or to be nosy, I think we want to know the quality of the report. It is important that we have the fullest context possible to be able to make decisions or give direction. I’m equally interested in hearing what the city manager’s interpretation of the findings are. But if there is some legal grounds by which we cannot view this information or not be privy to the report that was prepared at our behest, I would like to see a justification of that in writing. I really believe that as a councilmember I need to know why it is that information is being withheld from me and in writing."
However, both Mayor Pro Tem Don Saylor and Councilmember Stephen Souza disagreed.
"I think that it’s reasonable to make another point of view known here. That is to the degree that materials and information comes to the City Manager that is personnel related, we don’t look at the personnel files of every employee in the city."
The Mayor Pro Tem continued with a bit of his own John McCain, "that one moment"
"We actually employee those two [pointing at Harriet Steiner and Bill Emlen]. Those are the two we employ."
He continued:
"In terms of policy issues, in terms of behavioral issues that are addressed in a grand jury report, we should hear from the city manager and hear his report. How he has gathered information to arrive at the conclusions and findings that he is going to be presenting to us is his responsibility. Just so that’s clear, I’m interested in hearing from the city manager what his conclusions are based on whatever he has done to arrive at them. I don’t need to know what exactly was stated by any person, at every point in time."
Councilmember Stephen Souza agreed.
"I don’t need all fifty pages, I just don’t."
He continued:
"I don’t need to have the “he said, she said” full story. I don’t. I am not in charge of personnel, except for as Councilman Saylor said, we are in charge of two personnel, that’s who we’re in charge of, we hire and fire them. That is our main task from a personnel standpoint. When it comes to this matter, I want to know from our ombudsman, through our city manager, how he arrived at his conclusions, and give me the pertinent information so I can come to my conclusions about it."
Mayor Asmundson was in the middle, arguing that she wanted to see Bill Emlen's report first and then she would decide if she needed to see the entire report.
"I agree our city manager is responsible to us… He’s asking that this be put to January and staff has been busy with budget issues and trying to juggle other things… There are so many things that staff has been working on and I think that this is in the lower priority to the budget. Even though I think we need to hear about this as soon as the city manager is able to give us the report. Let’s wait for the report and see. If there are more questions about that then we can decide then whether we want the whole report or not. But I’d like to wait until then."
At this point, the council and city manager have now delayed the report until January. That means that the report will have been completed a full two months before the public is aware of the findings. Moreover, the council still has not seen the report either.

It remains my opinion that this has gone on entirely too long and that this process has been badly mishandled. At some point, hopefully we will know whether the very serious allegations that appeared in the Grand Jury report that was released in June are true and if they are, what the consequences will be.

---David M. Greenwald reporting