City manager left standing

City Manager Steve Burrell was left standing following a special closed-door meeting that was called for City Council members to evaluate his performance, and possibly fire him.

The two-hour meeting in a City Hall conference room came Friday morning, a week after Councilmen Kit Bobko and Michael DiVirgilio charged that the city’s staff had ignored their requests to study changes, such as outsourcing city services and cutting city salaries.

The closed-door meeting was called by Mayor Peter Tucker at the request of Councilman Kit Bobko.

Personnel matters are handled in closed meetings of the council, under California law. After the meeting, the only official announcement came from City Attorney Michael Jenkins, who reported that the council took no action.

The official agenda for the closed session listed a performance evaluation for Burrell and a potential “discipline/dismissal/release.”

Flying fur

On Thursday, May 26, a City Council budget session broke down amid vigorous exchanges, and what Mayor Peter Tucker called “shouting matches” involving Bobko and Police Chief Greg Savelli.

At that meeting, Bobko and DiVirgilio each contended that the city’s staff had given them the “slow diddle” in studying and reporting upon their requests. Tucker and Councilman Howard Fishman countered that the staff works hard to do what the council asks, and said the city has been cutting costs, which is a concern of Bobko and DiVirgilio.

Councilman Jeff Duclos, a potential swing vote at the meeting, was absent.

Bobko had begun asking a year ago for a report from Savelli on possible outsourcing of the police department’s animal control and parking enforcement services, and the councilman expressed his ire that the report was not presented as council members met to consider the budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Savelli told the council that he had been working on the report.

“The true difficulty in getting what Mr. Bobko wants is the difference between what we provide and what a private contractor provides. It’s a huge gap. I’m trying to compare apples to apples,” Savelli said.

“I’m trying to be as impartial as possible, and present you the facts. And I do believe I’m up against a – it’s very clear that Mr. Bobko wants to do this. And no matter how the facts come out, I think it needs to be done by the council, and not an individual,” Savelli said.

“I think you have to make the decision, and the community has to make the decision, about whether this service should remain within the city or not,” he said.

“Chief, we’re not asking for your opinion, we’re asking for a report,” Bobko interjected.

“Mr. Bobko, you did this the last time I spoke on this issue,” Savelli said.

“Listen, chief, you work for us, you are not elected. You do not have a vote. We asked you for a report. That’s all I’m asking about. I’m not asking for a political analysis. I simply want to know when can I get a report. When can I get a report?

City Manager Steve Burrell broke in and told Bobko that Savelli presented him with an outsourcing report, but it was not ready for the council because Burrell had not been able to discuss it with the police chief.

“He gave it to me a week or so ago and he’s been gone for a week,” Burrell said. “So we’ll sit down and discuss it and it will get on a [council] agenda.”

Savelli was away in Northern California in connection with his father passing away.

“I am also going to get a report done, because clearly I’m not going to get something that is objective,” Bobko said.

“You’ll get something that’s objective,” Burrell said.

“I just heard that I’m not,” Bobko said.

“That’s not what he said. No,” Tucker interjected.

“If it doesn’t fit your position, it’s not going to be [seen as] objective,” Savelli told Bobko.

“How do you know that? Have you shown me anything?” Bobko answered.

“Instead of having these shouting matches and not hearing what you want to hear, I’m going to call for the vote,” Tucker said.

The exchange was marked by heat throughout and punctuated briefly by high volume.

The council voted to meet again to discuss the budget 7 p.m. Monday, June 13, after Savelli and Burrell completed an outsourcing report – alongside a potentially competing one by Bobko. In addition, the city staff was directed to report on matters that DiVirgilio had asked to see – and did not see – in the budget report for Thursday’s meeting.

Lines drawn

Bobko and DiVirgilio had contended throughout the meeting that the staff’s report on the budget did not include items they had asked the staff to study, and both said they would not vote at the meeting to direct the staff to prepare a final budget for adoption until those matters are discussed.

With Duclos absent, it was clear that a move to approve the staff’s work would fail on a tie vote. Tucker defended the city staff, saying it is small and busy, and working hard to do what the council directs.

He also said it is up to council members to decide where they want to make budget cuts.

“I think we’re a little off line with the comments made to staff. I think we need to go through the budget and take things out…” he said.

Fishman pointed out that city staff balanced the $27 million proposed budget in part by permanently eliminating 17 employee positions. In addition, he said, the council has begun cutting costs by successfully pushing for a two-tier pension system, in which new employees would get lower benefits than existing employees.

“I think we’re making some good steps. I think we need to take things incrementally,” he said.

Fishman also said the council members are elected to determine “what we want [in the budget] and what we don’t.”

Balanced budget

The 17 chopped positions are the director of the Community Resources Department, three police officers, three paramedics, an assistant fire chief, a recreation coordinator, a human resources director, a public works inspector, a planning associate, an associate engineer, a court liaison, an office assistant, a maintenance worker, and a code enforcement officer, whose job was combined with that of senior building inspector.

The city did not lay off anybody. The positions were left empty when employees departed, including 11 who took early retirement offers.

The proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year also would add one position, an assistant to the city manager, and would restore five additional positions that had been left vacant: one police service officer who works in the jail and the police station, two administrative assistants, a public works superintendent and a clerk.

City Finance Director Viki Copeland said the clerk’s job is being done by a temp, and officials will evaluate whether that should continue once City Hall begins accepting online payment for citations.

‘Ground-up’

At one point in the meeting, Bobko asked Burrell about the status of a “ground-up reevaluation” of the city government.

“We have to completely restructure the way we do business,” Bobko said.

“You did ask for [a report on whether the city has] the organization I wanted. I’ve done three or four drafts and it’s not finished,” Burrell replied. Then he asked the same question of the council members.

“What kind of organization do you want?” Burrell said. “We hear conflicting things all the time.”

Burrell told Bobko that the city tries to keep down costs on an ongoing basis, and has done so since before the economic recession.

“The organization has always had it ingrained in the culture to find the lowest prices [from its vendors],” he said.

At a point before Bobko’s exchange with Savelli, Burrell told the councilman that the report on outsourcing parking and animal control services was “coming forward.”

“It is too slow. Too slow,” Bobko responded.

Burrell told Bobko that city officials try to outsource parts of the government when they can. He said he tried to interest county officials in absorbing Hermosa’s sewer system, but “we just got turned down” because of the system’s state of disrepair.

Pushed by Bobko for similar examples, Burrell said, “If you want me to come up with a list, I’ll come up with a list.”

Burrell added that he proposed a cost-cutting change in the operation of the Hermosa Beach Playhouse, a big-ticket item. The Playhouse is managed by the nonprofit Hermosa Arts Foundation.

“I’ve been working on this for over two years. I introduced this to them two years ago, and it was totally rejected,” Burrell said.

“I don’t think it was totally rejected,” DiVirgilio responded.

A recent study by a city consultant found that fees charged by the city for use of the playhouse fall short of covering the city’s expenses by $400,000.

‘Good ideas’

DiVirgilio told Burrell that the council had asked for staff input on matters that received no attention in the staff’s budget report.

“I’m trying to keep my cool about it…I think what it says is there are some good ideas that nobody wants to do on the merits,” DiVirgilio said.

He said the staff’s budget report included nothing about money for carbon-neutral project engineering, and no word on “creative staffing,” including part-time or flex-hour work, or reductions in pay.

“I think the thing nobody wants to do is cut salaries,” DiVirgilio said.

“We all seem to be interested in some kind of creativity of staffing,” he said. “…It hasn’t been addressed in a way that considers that we were asking for it for today.”

DiVirgilio also said the report included no information on his request to consider setting aside an additional $2,500 for the nonprofit Project Touch.

DiVirgilio said the council had previously voted “to return with a budget proposal to fund Project Touch” at a level on par with neighboring cities.

“Something that’s important about this budget, if you wish to add something or subtract something, that’s entirely at your discretion,” Burrell said.

‘Realists’

Fishman asked Savelli and Fire Chief David Lantzer how their departments were affected by lost employee positions. The police department was left three officers short of its past staffing level, and the fire department has cut back from six firefighters per shift to five.

“Of course I would not like to lose the positions,” Savelli said, adding that he recognizes “the economy and that it might not swing back for a number of years.”

“We’re being realists,” he said.

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