Some Westminster council members are calling for public employees at City Hall to come forward about allegedly being unduly influenced by elected officials or enduring a hostile work environment.
Such calls were made at Wednesday’s City Council meeting, following a council vote earlier this month calling for law enforcement investigations into how city officials sold a piece of parkland in 2017 without discussion.
City Councilman Tai Do, toward the tail end of yet another meeting stretching past midnight by scores of public speakers and bickering on the dais, sent this message to any city employee who may have concerns about the culture at City Hall:
Investigations are on the way.
“Council has decided to have a couple of investigations going on in the near future, and I would like to let the city employees know that as a council, we are very concerned. We just want to have the facts,” Do said during the council comments portion at the end of Wednesday’s meeting.
Do said he hopes city employees “voluntarily come forward” to investigators.
Earlier that night, another council member, Kimberly Ho, called for another probe — this time by Human Resources — into her charges that Councilman Chi Charlie Nguyen would bring “developer buddies” to City Hall and “yank” staff away from their daily duties.
Addressing a then-unnamed colleague on the dais, Ho said, “You mosey over and bring your developer with you and then you yank staff from whatever it is they’re doing and rudely interrupt staff.”
Initially, Ho warned she could name names, but wouldn’t.
That was, until Nguyen — taking issue with Ho’s support for a policy establishing communication boundaries between city staff and elected officials — called Ho out for opposing such a policy in 2019, when she was formerly aligned with Nguyen and Ta as a previous majority voting bloc.
“I remember vividly when council member (Tai) Do brought this item up 2 years ago, council member Ho, she was vice mayor at the time, challenged this,” Nguyen said.
Then Ho leveled with Nguyen.
“OK, Mr. Chi Charlie, it was you,” Ho said later, in response. “It was you who did not respect staff’s time. It was you who interfered with their jobs and it was you who actually, you’re very close to being sued by staff.”
She continued: “You’re the whole reason … I really didn’t want to reveal who it is … It just hasn’t been too good. I can tell you in the last four months, six months I hear a lot about you going up there to City Hall, and just bringing your developers with you and yanking staff out of their routine.”
Ho then asked the City Attorney and Human Resources staff to interview Westminster’s departing community services director, Alexa Smittle, on her way out the door “to document the situations that I heard about.”
Just hours earlier in the meeting, Interim City Manager Christine Cordon announced Smittle was one of a few city employees leaving Westminster — the latest of departures in an employee turnover problem that’s fueled a years-long leadership vacuum.
Such a leadership vacuum had forced Cordon — who for years was the city’s clerk managing records and tallying council votes at meetings — into the unusual circumstance of serving as acting city manager, as there have been four different ones in the last year-and-a-half.
Wednesday night’s public accusations centered on a vote to draw boundaries, in an official policy, between city staff and council members in their interactions and proximity to one another, excluding the city manager who is the council’s designated point of contact with City Hall.
Supporting the move to outline such boundaries were council members Do, Manzo, and Ho, who said the policy would be a “step forward” in shielding staff from such improper influence concerns in the future. Read it here.
Opposing the policy Wednesday night were Ta and Nguyen.
Ta specifically took issue with a provision in the policy distancing elected officials’ offices from City Hall.
Ta said the mayor’s role is often “busier” than that of council members, and that it’s customary for the mayor to have an office at City Hall: “Based on the new policy, my office is going to be removed.”
After going over the definition of who at City Hall counts as “staff” within the policy, council members and Cordon seemed to agree that elected officials could contact department heads — not just the city manager — so long as the purpose was for getting information that didn’t require substantial research or staff time.
“Generally, I would prefer the city council comes to me,” Cordon said.