BY DAVE PRICE
Daily Post Editor
I was surprised to learn that Los Altos City Manager Chris Jordan decided on his own, without a public hearing or a vote of City Council, to give city employees every other Friday off.
In exchange, the employees will work extra hours the remaining nine days of a two-week pay period to make up for the day they’ll get off. The schedule is called 9/80.
He says the schedule will reduce air pollution and combat climate change because employees won’t have to drive to work as often. Of course, the city could also reduce air pollution if he simply laid off unnecessary city employees, who would then stop driving to work entirely.
The other argument Jordan gave is that 9/80 would boost employee retention.
If an employee doesn’t want to work five days a week to make over $100,000 annually plus a lifetime pension and lifetime health benefits, the city is better off without that guy. Anybody who is complaining about a five-day-a-week work week isn’t the kind of employee the city should be trying to retain.
Palo Alto and Menlo Park switched to 9/80 in 2001. For a member of the public who needs to do business with the city, it meant that Fridays were always a crapshoot. Would they be closed this Friday, or is it next Friday? It’s hard to find that information on the websites of the two cities. So half the time you’d show up at City Hall on a Friday and the place was closed.
Eventually, people realized that they had to get their business done Monday-Thursday because you never quite knew if the city would open on Friday or not.
But customer service seems to never be a priority in any city government, and 9/80 is proof of that.
Mayor Jean Mordo insisted to our reporter that 9/80 wasn’t a perk. I disagree. For the average worker, a day off every two weeks without tapping vacation time or sick leave hours is definitely a perk.
A one-way gift
And it’s a perk Jordan gave away without getting anything in return. He confirmed that he didn’t reopen the union contracts of city employees. It was just a unilateral gift.
The switch to 9/80 would be easier to take if he had obtained a concession from the unions in return, such as a reduction in the next set of raises employees will get or an increase in the amount employees pay toward their own retirement benefits.
And he should have brought it to the city council in a public session to let the taxpayers — the people who fund the city — have a say in whether this perk should be given away. Jordan told council about the change in a closed-door executive session.
“He runs the city, not the council, but he had the courtesy to tell us he intended to propose to do that,” Mordo said.
A roll call vote would let the community know where elected council members stand when it comes to fiscal responsibility. But that’s probably too much accountability to ask from Los Altos.
No time clocks
Speaking about accountability, how will anybody know if employees are keeping up their end of the bargain and actually working extra hours on the days they have to come to work? Apparently the city doesn’t use time clocks or other mechanisms of timekeeping. Nor does it measure employee output.
When our reporter asked Jordan how he would make sure the employees worked the additional hours, he had a telling response. He said, “the same way they know that the employees are working eight hours a day now,” but declined to say what he meant by that.
We apparently have no way of knowing whether they come to work on time or leave early now, before 9/80 starts on Aug. 27. We won’t know after 9/80 either. There’s no accountability.
Managing the manager
This controversy illustrates a problem that exists in many cities — that city councils often fail to do a good job managing their city manager.
I think many council members reverse the employer-employee relationship in their mind. They act as if they work for the city manager.
Actually, the city manager works for the council, not the other way around. The council hires and fires a city manager.
The council should also set goals for the manager and see to it that those goals are met.
Sadly, few people who are elected to a council have the experience to know how to manage anybody. So they get seduced by “the staff” — the manager and his or her department heads who cater to their every wish. They eventually develop a bond with these employees. And when the public criticizes the city manager or a city employee, these seduced council members turn against the public and defend the employees as if they were beloved family members. Council members should understand that they represent the community, not the city employees.
Legally, the council is still in charge in Los Altos and has every right to establish employment policies such as hours to be worked. The council can put 9/80 on the agenda for a public hearing and an up-or-down vote.
But I won’t hold my breath. Just beware of the people you elect.
Editor Dave Price’s column appears on Mondays. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.