The Shang Affair Revisited

There continues to be much ongoing commentary about the paid administrative leave that can best be described as a “golden parachute” that Jane Shang is receiving from the taxpayers of the community. Unfortunately, the commentary is based on lack of information because the city continues to hide behind the “personnel matters” illusion. Because of this the reasons for Shang’s paid leave continues to be unknown. Tomorrow’s city council agenda holds a glimmer of hope for finding out much more about that highly controversial severance agreement and others that might exist.

I write a glimmer of hope because although Michiel Noe has posted an item on today’s city agenda asking to have a “discussion of recent contract changes that were completed prior to the departure of former City Manager Joyce Wilson” the reality is that the item is likely to go nowhere. As is the modus operandi for the city the likely scenario for how this item will be dealt with will either be a deletion of the item through the consent agenda period or by Noe himself, an immediate motion to enter executive session or a muddled discussion wrapped around employee privacy.

As a matter of fact, yesterday afternoon there were indications that Noe had already agreed to delete his item from the agenda later this morning. I was told by two individuals that Noe had stated during the agenda review meeting yesterday morning that he would be deleting the item.

Although Noe will probably move to delete his item, one or more citizens may take the opportunity to comment on the item during the call to the public or during the consent agenda discussion. Discussion during the call to the public is generally discouraged and deleting the item effectively kills any public discussion about it. It is one of those “inconvenient truths” that the city would rather not have openly discussed.

However, as you muddle through the online discussion about the Shang leave you will notice a school of thought about whether the city manager has the authority to issue such a severance package. Those supporting this notion believe that the charter specifically gives the city manager the authority to hire and fire city employees. They argue that city council’s authority is to create policy that the city manager implements. This is correct. However, it is important to note that the city council has authority over the city’s budget.

It is important to understand that “golden parachutes” are not a simple matter of hiring and firing a city employee. Separation agreements, by their nature, are policy decisions made for the financial wellbeing or the security of the city. Firing an employee is a simple matter of separating the employee for cause or financial reasons. Modifying an employee contract to ensure that a former employee vests into the pension fund after being separated is a policy decision because not only does it affect the city’s short-term budget but it also influences the city’s long-term budget through the city’s pension fund.

For this reason alone, the separation agreement between the city and Jane Shang is not a matter of simply firing an employee but a policy matter that needs to be discussed and approved by city council. Whether this is done in executive session or in open session is immaterial at this point because no such discussion has been had about the severance agreement.

The city council is about to embark in discussing next year’s budget. In that discussion the raising of fees, the raising of taxes and holding the line on expenses will factor through the whole process. The number of employees and the number vacancies that will be filled, or left empty will also be discussed.

That being the case, how can the city continue to argue that a severance package that specifically includes a vesting option for an employee who is not reporting to work is not appropriate for city council discussion?

If city council were to allow this notion to remain unchallenged then what is to stop Tommy Gonzalez from firing all former city department heads with substantial severance packages to avoid litigation and then hire all of his family and friends to fill those positions?

Either the city council has a right to discuss severance packages or it does not. If city council does not have that right then why have elected officials bothering to discuss the city budget?

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