West Hollywood officials have summoned city employees to an unprecedented mass meeting that some elected officials and city workers say was prompted by widespread morale problems and high turnover.
More than 120 city employees will leave their desks Friday morning for the gathering at the Pacific Design Center called by City Manager Paul Brotzman. City offices will be closed for the morning.
Though the meeting is blandly described in a memo from Brotzman as an opportunity to "look at where we are as a City and as employees," numerous present and former city employees say that morale in city government is so low that it is affecting the way the city is run. It also is causing "an extraordinary rate of employee turnover," according to city employee union President David Amorena.
City Council member Paul Koretz, who often involves himself with labor issues and working conditions in the city, said the decision to call the meeting indicates serious problems inside City Hall.
"I've been concerned that a large number of employees have left City Hall of late. I am concerned about rumblings and rumors I have heard about problems," Koretz said in an interview. "I have enough of a feel that something is wrong to be concerned."
Officials in the city personnel department did not return phone calls requesting specific information on employee turnover, but numerous city officials and workers said turnover is high.
"A lot of people are leaving," said one employee, who noted that a recruitment bulletin board advertising vacant positions has been unusually full in recent months. "But when people leave, everybody just basically congratulates them, because it's really the best thing to just get out."
Billing itself as the "creative city," West Hollywood takes pride in promoting an atmosphere of tolerance and open-mindedness. But disgruntled employees say inside city government there is anything but an open, accepting atmosphere, and that is causing once-idealistic workers to flee.
"One reason I came to work here is because I believed the organization was totally supportive, positive and innovative. I left the city feeling real disillusioned," said one former city employee, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. "There is such a contradictory image the city tries to present, compared to what happens among city employees. This city does not take care of its own."
A number of former and present city employees have complained that city management demands too much work from employees and consistently passes over longtime employees for promotions, instead reaching outside the city to fill management positions.
"Jobs in City Hall are the kind where you have to go in, fight fires all day long and then go home with more work than you had in the morning," said former public works employee Jim Merchant. The workload, Merchant said, is exhausting. "I just could not keep up with it."
Many also said that management attempts to keep a tight rein on city employees, stifling criticism by punishing dissenters with inadequate office quarters or by threatening them with firing, or actually firing them.
Tales abound among city employees of people who claim to have been singled out for punishment from city management: demotions for complaints of sexual harassment and refusal to bring salaries of dissenters up to scale.
City Manager Brotzman acknowledges a morale problem within the city government and said Friday's meeting is an effort to begin tackling the problem.
"I would say the direct comments I have received have run about 60-40, with the majority saying they are happy here. The rest are saying there are some real serious problems," Brotzman said. He said primary issues of concern to employees he has talked with are lack of space, lack of privacy and noise.
But Brotzman vehemently denied any pressure from management to make employees toe the line and said such complaints probably come from a few "very bitter" employees.
"There is, in any organization, a fear of retribution or perceived retribution. Here, there is also a fear that retribution has occurred. . . . If that has occurred, I would like to know. I will not tolerate that in this organization," Brotzman said.
Amorena, of the employee union, predicted that the fear of retribution would inhibit city workers from openly discussing problems during Friday's meeting, perhaps leading city management to conclude no morale problem exists.
"The perception of an atmosphere of retaliation is substantiated and founded in many circumstances," Amorena said. "The single greatest concern of our leadership is addressing the fear of retribution. It absolutely limits what people will feel comfortable saying Friday."
But even if Friday's meeting doesn't inspire many to openly criticize the city's management, some employees think the winds are changing and that the closure of city offices on Friday may signal the tiniest of openings for change.
"I think this city has done a real good job of trying to keep things quiet, but if they make enough employees angry, I think there will be changes," said one former employee. "Right now, they don't want disagreements--they want conformity."