In a hastily called closed session, the Richmond City Council voted Saturday to appoint a temporary city manager, which restored a degree of stability at City Hall after the council rashly fired City Manager Carlos Martinez last week.
The council appointed Henry L. Gardner by a unanimous vote. The former Oakland city manager has an impressive resume. He had the longest tenure of any city manager in Oakland’s history and, in 1992, was named “The Most Valuable City Manager in the Country” by City and State Magazine. He later made his mark at Wall Street’s Donaldson, Lufkin and Jenrette as the senior vice president of public finance in the Western Region. He also founded a consulting firm that advises western cities and counties on finance, governance, efficiency, and productivity.
Gardner has a working knowledge of Richmond. In February, he facilitated a retreat for city leaders to develop city priorities and goals. “Given the situation, I couldn’t be happier,” Mayor Tom Butt said. “We’re not out of the woods yet, but we have some breathing room.”
The city became suddenly rudderless last week when the council voted 4-3 to fire Martinez after just eight months on the job. The city now must pay $350,000 in severance and begin the difficult search for a permanent manager. Councilmembers Demnlus Johnson, Eduardo Martinez, Nat Bates, and Melvin Willis voted to fire Martinez; mayor Tom Butt and councilmembers Ben Choi and Jael Myrick voted against the firing.
Martinez fell into disfavor with labor over recent contract negotiations. Some city unions have not had a Cost of Living Adjustment raise in four years. According to the SEIU representative, the delay has made it tougher for their employees to keep up in the expensive Bay Area. The city is still negotiating with Local 21, SEIU 1021, and IFPTE 21. However, Richmond has a “Me-Too” clause, which means if one union gets a raise, all five unions get a raise.
While Butt said the union’s position is a fair one, Martinez and his staff claimed Richmond doesn’t have the money for the unions’ requested 4 percent raises. Martinez struggled to tame a $7 million budget deficit, which he inherited, in the budget the council approved last month.
“The city has offered a 1 percent raise, which was reflected in the budget adopted by the City Council just a month ago,” Butt wrote after the firing. “The City simply does not have the money for a larger increase at this time. No city council member suggested, publicly at least, that we build additional raises into the budget or suggested where that money would come from.”
But the unions insisted the city does have the money and that Martinez misrepresented the city’s budget reserve, which is somewhere between 10 and 15 percent depending on the source. “The $7 million budget deficit came out of nowhere and we could never get a straight answer on the reserves,” police union president Ben Therriault said.
The city’s finance department verified that the reserves are at roughly 10 percent, which is below the council-approved target of 15 percent.
Union representatives said Martinez’ negotiating style was a problem. Prior City Manager Bill Lindsay put a high value on communication. He spent a lot of time meeting with councilmembers, union leaders, and various other stakeholders. People felt as though they knew him and that they had been listened to, even if they did not get whatever it was they wanted. “Bill Lindsay had the rare skill of being able to give people bad news and make them think it was good,” Butt said.
Martinez was not particularly communicative, and rarely met with councilmembers, nonprofits, or union leaders. Often he did not return calls, Therriault said. In the eight months he was city manager, he never gave a press interview. Martinez’s style was jarring compared to Lindsay’s and generated mistrust and confusion during negotiations, union reps said. “Martinez did not understand the value of good labor relations,” Therriault said.
Butt is dubious of the complaints about Martinez’ style. “Frankly, I think that’s a load of crap,” Butt said. “This was about money and power. And right now, we have a union-run city.”
Unions expressed their dissatisfaction with Martinez publicly at June 2 rally outside City Hall, while privately they began lobbying for his firing. Eventually, four councilmembers agreed. The action was so swift that they did not even have a temporary city manager lined up. They voted to appoint Community Services Director Rochelle Polk, but she promptly declined the job.
That left Richmond without even an assistant city manager to deal with the tidal wave of duties a manager faces daily. The situation was more critical because the council is on summer break and will not return until Sept. 10, leaving 49 days during which Richmond would have been without a council, manager, or assistant manager to run the city.
Councilman Choi called the process too sudden. “Whether Martinez should have been fired or not was not even the question,” he said. “A better way would have been to put him on probation for six months maybe and then address whatever problems still existed. Or at least put him and the city on notice and fire him at his one-year anniversary.” Choi said the council then would have time to find a qualified temporary city manager and possibly a qualified permanent replacement. “This way the city looks out of control,” Choi said after the firing.
Councilman Jael Myrick, who voted not to fire Martinez, said the situation is still not ideal, but the council at least stabilized the situation on Saturday. “We voted unanimously, which is a good thing and we were lucky Henry Gardner was available,” Myrick said. “It will keep the trains running on time for the short term.”