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Sunnyvale Shakeup

[whitespace] Bob LaSala Change Happens: City Manager Bob LaSala says his restructuring efforts are part of a process to keep improving the city, and that some anxiety is to be expected.

Once, the city of Sunnyvale was nationally recognized for its stable city government. Now its employees are leaving en masse

By Kelly Wilkinson and Will Harper

WITH THE AUG. 10 MEETING heading into its third hour and the clock approaching 10:30pm, the atmosphere in the Sunnyvale City Council's meeting chambers grows palpably tense. In 1993, President Clinton recognized this city of 125,959 as a "performance leader" and one of the best-run cities in the nation. But a growing chorus of critics say that since City Manager Robert LaSala was hired in June 1997, the wheels have started to come off the wagon.

On this night, Councilman Stan Kawczynski shows his displeasure with LaSala in a particularly creative way. He asks the city attorney if the city has any legal "recourse" against the Sacramento-based headhunting firm for not disclosing details about LaSala's reported forced exit as city manager of Boca Raton, Fla., in 1991.

Councilman Fred Fowler snaps back at Kawczynski: "I submit to you that we do have recourse, not against the search firm but against the city manager. Four of us have the power to remove him, so if you feel that should happen, I suggest you make the motion. But I'll be damned if I vote to remove this guy at this time."

Sunnyvale has long been trumpeted across the nation as a model of effective, innovative city government. The city has consistently turned in the lowest crime rates in its population bracket, and it has been cited in several leading books on municipal government as the pinnacle of progressive city management. But the man this body hired two years ago is presiding over a full-scale staff revolt that threatens to tarnish Sunnyvale's long-held image as one of the country's best-run cities.

During the past five years, the city's employee turnover rates have nearly doubled, even though retirement rates have barely budged a percentage point.

Many say LaSala, who was hired to replace former City Manager Tom Lewcock, is to blame.

"We had stability for decades and the new dynamics [under LaSala] were just really hard to adjust to," said one former employee in the city manager's office, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I just didn't want to be the last one out of there to turn out the lights."

Since La Sala came on board, four out of eight managers in his department have left, including deputy city clerk Carol Butler, public information officer David Vossbrink and senior management analyst Jim Webb, who went to work for San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales. In addition, the four top managers in the Public Safety Department have left their jobs in the past five months.

City employees, both present and past, are reluctant to share horror stories about the boss. The most common complaint is that LaSala provides little direction and doesn't explain what he wants, which results in work having to be redone if someone hasn't intuited the boss's desires right.

"[Previous City Manager Tom] Lewcock was much more clear about what he wanted in the final product," a longtime Sunnyvale administrator says. "With Lewcock, you'd know where the bullseye was; with LaSala it always seems like a moving target."

Grumble Fishing

IN FEBRUARY, an independent survey gauging the morale of city employees indicated that although they take pride in working for Sunnyvale, they have deepening mistrust toward high-level management. In fact, the vast majority of staffers in the city manager's office said in a February survey that they didn't trust their bosses--under City Manager Bob LaSala.

Morale is low. In the survey responses, 77 percent of city manager employees checked "unfavorable" when asked to compare the city to the past. Twenty-three percent said "neutral" and none said "favorable." When asked whether they trust senior management, 92 percent said "unfavorable" and eight said "neutral." Again, none responded favorably.

When asked whether senior management provides necessary direction, 77 percent said "unfavorable" and 23 said "neutral." And again, none said "favorable."

A reliable source says that one factor driving dissatisfaction with LaSala is how he doled out pay raises last year. According to public documents, LaSala awarded most department heads and other top managers 7 percent raises. At the same time, five of eight managers in La Sala's office received a token 1 percent raise.

LaSala himself has not turned a blind eye to the tumult surrounding him, acknowledging that this is a time of uncertainty evidenced by recent restructuring within his department.

"We undertook that survey to look into people's perceptions--both the real and the not real--and it unearthed a lot of good information," he says. "[The complaints] are something that needs attention, and we're giving it attention and have facilitated discussions in all departments."

Clearly, some of the discontent results from the fact that LaSala followed Lewcock, an icon of Sunnyvale government for 17 years.

Lewcock was sort of the Michael Jordan of city managers, someone who brought Sunnyvale into the national spotlight with his mantra of performance-based budgeting. When cities throughout the state were running huge shortfalls in the '80s and early '90s, Sunnyvale under Lewcock always remained in the black.

Whoever succeeded Lewcock would have to live in his shadow and forever face comparisons to the former city manager--not unlike how 49ers quarterback Steve Young had to endure comparisons to Joe Montana.

LaSala says comparisons to Lewcock--which he tried to nip in the bud upon his arrival by telling the city that he would not try to fill Lewcock's shoes but rather stand on the shoulders of giants--are unproductive, even if they are irresistible.

"Some people don't like my style," he concedes. "Some people didn't like my predecessor's style. I don't think any one style is going to be the ultimate style for everyone else."

Past Tense

AT THE TIME LaSala was applying in 1997 for the top job in Sunnyvale, his résumé was also circulating among officials in the Florida city of Clearwater. They were impressed with his extensive public-sector credentials: deputy county administrator in Sarasota, Fla., since 1991; city manager of Boca Raton for two years; chief assistant administrator in Pinellas County, Fla., for nine years.

Clearwater Mayor Rita Garvey even told the local newspaper that LaSala was her top candidate. But Clearwater utimately passed over LaSala and offered the job to another bureaucrat from North Miami Beach.

Still, LaSala was still in the running for the prestigious Sunnyvale job, which now pays $146,300 a year. LaSala and 58 other people had originally applied. Now in June 1997, the list was down to three finalists including LaSala and, sources say, San Carlos City Manager Mike Garvey.

LaSala looked like a contender, but he had a blotch on his record: His tenure in Boca Raton ended in January 1991, the result of what the Palm Beach Post called a "forced resignation."

According to the story in the Post, the circumstances that led to LaSala's resignation began a year earlier when budget numbers revealed the city manager had authorized out-of-state staff trips totalling $114,000.

In a separate incident in Boca Raton, LaSala reportedly ignored the advice of city legal staff and went public with the findings of his investigation into sexual harassment allegations by two female lifeguards.

The final straw, news reports say, came when the City Council learned that LaSala had raised the salaries of a top assistant and five department heads by 10 percent and 11 percent, even though other workers had been persuaded to accept lower pay hikes.

The Boca Raton City Council accepted his resignation in a 4-1 vote.

When the Sunnyvale City Council unanimously offered LaSala the job, its members knew precious little about the details behind his stormy departure from Boca Raton six years before.

For his part, LaSala says he never withheld any information from the city or the search firm. And David Nieto, the director of human resources, who went to Florida to check into LaSala's background, maintains that "everything about Bob was public knowledge. I am fully aware of his background and all the council knew about his background and experience."

Nevertheless, the councilmembers seemed to be caught off guard when ex-Mayor Frances Rowe--who is running for the council again--and other LaSala critics started circulating articles from Florida newspapers detailing the city manager's departure.

The information in the news reports surprised LaSala's top critic on the Sunnyvale City Council, Stan Kawczynski, who doesn't recall ever being told by the search firm or Nieto exactly why LaSala left Boca Raton.

"That is a big question mark for me," Kawczynski says. "It's like, 'Hello Mr. Search Firm? Why wasn't this disclosed to me?' If we had seem something like that, I think we would have had second thoughts. I personally would have."

Four other councilmembers--all of whom still firmly back the city manager--recall at least being informed that LaSala had left Boca Raton in a politically charged, controversial atmosphere.

But all acknowledge that they didn't bother or don't recall asking any followup questions seeking more detail about LaSala's past.

"We knew he had left, but we didn't know the reasons for his leaving," Councilman Jim Roberts says. "But none of the red flags were raised. I've heard some rumors, and I don't know what those circumstances were, but what I really focus on is what he's doing in Sunnyvale."

Councilman Jack Walker says he could find nothing in the notes he took during the recruitment process regarding LaSala's exit from Boca Raton. However, he recalls the recruiters mentioning in general terms that LaSala didn't leave under the best of circumstances, though he didn't press for details.

"In my own defense," Walker says, "had I asked for more information, it probably wouldn't have changed my mind."

Walker argues that LaSala's alleged transgressions in Boca Raton were hardly scandalous. In the sexual harassment case of the two lifeguards, the local chapter of the National Organization for Women applauded his handling of the matter, in which the city manager reprimanded the two male employees involved. And as for jacking up the salaries of top management, Walker says, the City Council's own policies allowed LaSala to authorize the pay hikes.

But former Sunnyvale Mayor Larry Stone, now the county's tax assessor, can't believe that the councilmembers who hired LaSala didn't bother to ask for more information before they made him the new city manager.

"If I was on the City Council," Stone says, "I would have gotten the details. That doesn't mean I wouldn't have eventually hired him, but as mayor I would want to know if there was anything suggesting management shortcomings."

Reinventing LaSala

MEANWHILE, LASALA says he had to deal with some "very thorny issues" during his three-year tenure in Boca Raton, adding that the city was known for having stormy relationships with its city managers. Since 1973 none of the Boca Raton city managers have stayed more than four years and most were fired or resigned under pressure, according to the Sun Sentinel, a paper in the Boca Raton area.

David Osbourne, author of Reinventing Government and Busting Bureaucracy, two well-regarded books that used Sunnyvale as an example of a model city, says city manager compatibility with a council can often be hit or miss.

"There's a saying that city managers come fired with enthusiasm and they leave the same way," Osbourne said, adding that the average city manager's tenure hovers around five years.

There is no indication that LaSala's job is in any immediate danger. He has the firm support of five of the seven councilmembers. His primary council critic, Stan Kawczynski, will be termed out of office in January. This week the council formed a three-person subcommitee to investigate whether Kawczynski violated the city's code of ethics with his recent public attacks on LaSala.

In the past few months, LaSala also has managed to warm up chilly relations with the Public Safety Officers' Association after a bitter fight last year over a binding-arbitration ballot measure. The PSOA applauded LaSala's recent restructuring of the department in which he axed three commander posts.

"He's making changes which are going to be very good for the long run," Councilman Fred Fowler says, "but still with any kind of change comes anxiety."

This week the city suffered yet another loss when longtime City Council secretary Lenore Wilcox retired.

Ex-City Clerk Carol Butler, who retired in June after working at City Hall for 33 years, says the city had become disjointed under LaSala's leadership and she predicted that the turnover would continue. "[LaSala] is different from [previous city manager] Tom Lewcock, and that's what people are dealing with right now," she says. "Maybe I'll be proved wrong and there will be some positive results in the future, but this is a different leadership style than I've been used to."

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From the August 19-25, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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