An employee in the city of San Diego's Planning Department apparently was ordered to resign Friday for circulating a one-sentence memorandum to his colleagues asking how the department's working conditions could be improved.
Associate planner Philip Millenbah, a half-time department employee, refused to quit, and his status is on hold pending investigation by Planning Director Robert Spaulding next week.
Millenbah, who claims that a superior gave him approval to conduct the survey, said he was incensed to learn that the Planning Department staff was informed of his dismissal even as another manager was demanding his resignation in a surprise closed-door meeting with him Friday morning.
"I wrote (the resignation) out, and then I ripped it up," Millenbah said. "I'm not turning in my resignation. I'm going to the mat on this."
Millenbah said he is demanding a department-wide memo retracting comments he believes were made at the staff meeting.
Spaulding offered widely varying explanations of the incident Friday, at first saying that Millenbah was fired because he "went well beyond his authority and his responsibility for his position."
Spaulding later amended that statement, which he said was based on a quick and inadequate briefing, and said Millenbah had refused to resign. Late Friday afternoon, Spaulding and two other Planning Department officials declined comment on the situation on the grounds that it is a personnel matter.
The incident comes amid continued turmoil in the Planning Department brought on by a wide-ranging management shake-up initiated by Spaulding, who was hired in November, 1987.
From October, 1988, to October, 1989, 42 members of the department's 255-person staff left the department, according to a report issued Nov. 9 by Spaulding. At least 28 of the employees were involved in the actual planning or review of residential, commercial and industrial development projects.
The report, which asks the city's Civil Service Commission to study the salaries of planners, cites low pay as a major reason for the departures and increasing difficulty in recruitment.
In an interview, Spaulding also said that upper-level planning positions are filled by relatively young people, leading lower-level planners to believe that the possibilities for career advancement are limited. He said developers are targeting city planners, offering $5,000 to $10,000 more annually in wages than the city. Non-management planners in San Diego make $22,000 to $40,000 a year, according to an April report by the American Planning Assn.
Spaulding also acknowledged that "the way we go about doing our business is going through a lot of change. Some people don't feel comfortable with it. And others are very excited about it."
But Millenbah and one other planner interviewed Friday lay blame for the turnover squarely on Spaulding's shoulders, saying that he has destroyed morale since his arrival through an emphasis on accommodating developers and de-emphasizing planning oversight.
"They're making it very clear that the client is the developer, and some of us work here out of a sense of public interest," Millenbah said in a comment echoed by the other planner, who asked not to be identified.
Millenbah said that planners are particularly concerned that an employee of the Fieldstone Co., a major city home builder, is serving on a committee interviewing candidates for a new management-level planner position.
Spaulding and two deputies defended the practice Friday, noting that they also have had a Sierra Club member on a previous selection panel.
But City Councilman Ron Roberts, an architect, said he is "surprised that they would have outsiders on the interviewing staff."
Roberts said he received an anonymous two-page letter addressed to Mayor Maureen O'Connor and all eight council members that complains about conditions in the Planning Department. He added that, independent of the letter, he has recently become concerned over the turnover in the department. He said he has held one discussion with Spaulding and intends to initiate another.
The letter, dated Oct. 16, complains about the attrition rate, dismissal of managers "without apparent reason" and "unfair" promotions and filling of new positions, along with complaints similar to those made by Millenbah.
"The staff of the Planning Department is severely strained and feels powerless to improve the situation for fear of recrimination," the letter-writer wrote. "I implore you to take what action you can to correct these basic problems within the department before the public is made to suffer."
Millenbah said similar grumbling led him to ask Tom Story, the Planning Department's deputy director of development and environmental planning, for permission to survey department employees last month. Millenbah said that, in an electronic message sent by computer, Story told him that "I look forward to seeing the results of the survey."