Sorensen and Gruendl: city spending trend has to stop! Right after we raise management salaries!

8 May

I read a pair of letter in the News and Review, the first from fellow gadfly Emily Alma, and the next a response to Alma from Scott Gruendl and Mark Sorensen.

As you can read below, Alma is basically complaining about Brian Nakamura’s questionable management style. Gruendl and Sorensen, who hired him, are defending themselves. 

I don’t agree with everything Alma says – what “spirit of warmth and respect” is she talking about? Hah! The City of Chico has always been a snake pit. I’ve been approached by people who wouldn’t give me their name, but told me, in almost these exact words, “I work for the city of Chico, and I want you to keep doing what you’re doing.” I’ve  been handed documents by others who remained nameless, and told me things like, “if anybody asks where you got this, tell them you paid for it!”  I was approached once physically by a city employee and another time called at my private phone number by a county employee, both of whom explained to me the disparity between the lower paid workers and management.  The woman from the city approached me in the breezeway between the administration building and the chambers, looking over her shoulder constantly, whispering, acting in terror for her life. I couldn’t help but notice, she wasn’t dressed half as nice as the staffers I see regularly in meetings.  I call them, “the swishy people“, cause their expensive clothes swish when they walk. 

Not to be confused with “The Swish,” Nick Swisher.

The classified staffers at both the city and county pay their full share. Meanwhile, I don’t know what county management pays, but city management still pay less than half of that 9 percent “share”. And, the “employee share” is less than a third of the total premium, which goes up yearly. Right now it’s around 26 percent of the total cost of the pension, it’s going up to 31 percent next year. The total cost of each pension being 70 – 90 percent of that employee’s highest year’s salary. 

Of course, I’m not talking about new hires. Mark Sorensen keeps reminding me, new hires will pay 50 percent share. “New hire” means, you are coming into the California system for the first time. Sorensen knows damned good and well they hire most of these people from other towns in California. Until Mealy Mouth Sorensen and the rest of the fist puppets on council stand up on their hind legs and make ALL of the current employees pay their full share, we will be headed toward bankruptcy. Instead, Brian Nakamura directs staff in looking  for new sources of revenue. 

Did you know, the city is  in the process of eminent domaining a family over near Hwy 99, in order to get a grant? Yes, Tom Varga admitted that they need the Douglas family’s property because they can’t get the grants they’re after unless the bike trail is contiguous, meaning, they have to take it right across the Douglas’ side yard instead of simply routing it on neighborhood streets, like they did over in my neighborhood. These grants aren’t used on the projects for which they are specified – are you kidding? You think it  costs $100,000 to pave a strip of dirt down the side of the freeway? No, it’s to pay Varga’s salary and benefits, duh.   If you start paying attention to the agendas for these meetings Downtown, you’ll see all the grant proposals flying out. They are desperate for money. 

NOTE: I have heard from a third party that this eminent domain was denied in closed session, but I don’t have any staff report to that effect. I do however have the e-mail in which Varga admits the action was necessary to secure grants. I’ll keep you posted.

So, why is Nakamura raising department head salaries? In my opinion, given his record of moving from one public entity to another over the last 5 – 10 years, I believe he is just enriching himself and his friends, and will move on to the next entity as soon as he sees the curtains falling on this operation. Go read the Hemet newspaper – what a mess!  

Meanwhile, Team Nakamura Head Cheerleaders Scott Gruendl and Mark Sorensen are still trying to  tell us, this guy is doing us a favor, a $217,000/year plus benefits kind of favor. 

The say, “The city has been spending more than it receives for many years, and that trend had to stop.”   Well, pray tell, when is THAT going to happen? Right after this latest supplemental budget appropriation to pay the newly inflated salaries/benefits? 

You voters realize, Scott and Mark are both in the trough themselves. Gruendl is a health officer over in Glenn County. I’ve read more than once in the minutes of the Glenn County Supes meetings, Gruendl getting reprimanded first by another department head and then more recently by a county supervisor for constantly trying to manipulate other departments into his control and asking for a salary increase for doing so. The department head had planned on retiring, but when Gruendl made a play to take over his department, the man changed his mind and stayed, claiming that Gruendl was just out for more salary. Duh! 

Sorensen meanwhile took a favor from ex-Chico-City Manager Tom Lando, who got Sorensen the city manager position in Biggs. Sorensen makes around $90,000/ year there – hey, anybody ever seen the town of Biggs? I’ve seen the sign, but I look around and all that’s there is orchards! But he gets about $90,000 to manage that. And benefits. In addition to the $21,000/year package we pay for him as city councilor. 

These two are in no position to rock the boat. They’re with Lando – essentially, these people are employees of CalPERS, and what’s good for CalPERS is good for them. It’s true what Emily Alma is saying – council isn’t running our city, Brian Nakamura is running our city. 

We really need to come up with some candidates for council in 2014 that work for us instead of $taff and CalPERS.  Or, how about, we change the charter to dump council and elect the city manager and other management staffers? It’s done in other towns, including Police and Fire chiefs. 

You tell me what we should do. Below are the letters I’ve mentioned above. 

Is the council losing control? – N&R April 25

Re “Money man: Chico’s new finance director takes his seat” (Newslines, by Tom Gascoyne, April 18):

Since Brian Nakamura’s appointment as Chico’s city manager, it seems that control of the city is slipping away from our elected City Council. We have two instances of long time, beloved employees leaving their posts without explanation, the loss of Jennifer Hennessy as finance director, major restructuring of departments, city employees nervous about losing their jobs, and Councilwoman Ann Schwab expressing disapproval at how the shakeup has been handled.

I understand that changes are needed for the city to be managed more efficiently, but the way this is coming down feels like an aggressive attack rather than a thoughtful approach to reorganization.

Now the hiring of another person from outside the area at another inflated salary, someone with a questionable history involving hostile relations with employees, adds another layer of concern. It seems that we have an increasingly toxic environment in the city offices.

I’m disappointed that Ann Schwab’s objections were not discussed at the last council meeting, and urge the remaining council members to take these warning flags seriously.

It is the City Council’s responsibility to oversee the dynamics of this major transition. I’m sure there are ways to reorganize without losing the spirit of warmth and respect that has characterized the city of Chico. I hope it’s not too late.

Emily Alma

Editor’s note: Ms. Alma sent her letter to the members of the City Council, two of whom chose to respond to it as follows:

A unanimous council very deliberately appointed Mr. Nakamura as city manager, and a council supermajority continues to support Mr. Nakamura’s new direction for the city.

In contrast to the subversive whisper campaign emanating from City Hall against Mr. Nakamura and Ms. Alma’s unfounded accusations about “control” or a lack of a “thoughtful approach to reorganization” in City Hall, the opposite is true. The path to positive changes has been laid out for nine months, well communicated and methodically executed.

Reorganization has not resulted in layoffs, and department heads know they may be reclassified but remain employed. Salaries correlate to new responsibilities under a leaner administration.

Ms. Alma is mistaken that city management is slipping from the council. Council is exercising its authority by restoring the “public service” focus to the organization and installing the expertise necessary to lead the city out of financial crisis.

The city has been spending more than it receives for many years, and that trend had to stop.

The city employees we speak with support the change in direction, and recognize that challenges remain ahead.

As we work through the process, far higher levels of transparency and communication are being demanded and achieved.

Vice Mayor Scott Gruendl

Councilman Mark Sorensen 

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