This is the second installment of a two-part series on the city of Santa Cruz’s harassment policy. — Editor
Before former Parks Director Mauro Garcia came to work for the city of Santa Cruz, he worked for the Southern California city of Vista, where he served as public works director.
Martha* worked with Garcia there. She doesn’t remember the time fondly.
“That man’s a monster,” she told GT.
After leaving Vista, Garcia spent seven years here in Santa Cruz before abruptly leaving his post as parks director a year and a half ago.
As GT learned via a public records request and reported earlier this year (“Poor Conductor,” 6/5/19), City Manager Martín Bernal asked Garcia to resign because of a violation of Santa Cruz’s employee conduct policy.
Years earlier, at the city of Vista, Martha says Garcia manipulated her into staying at a job she was trying to leave, and into beginning an affair with him.
After evaluating Martha over several sessions, a counselor hired by the city of Vista summarized his findings in a 2010 letter, saying that Garcia had taken advantage of Martha when she was in a vulnerable period of her life. Garcia targeted her and emotionally bonded Martha to himself, so that she could serve his needs, the counselor believed. Martha suffered “emotional abuse/intimidation and isolation at work,” he wrote, and a cycle was created that only made her more dependent on Garcia.
Martha ultimately left her management analyst job, under duress, she says. Nine years later, she says she hasn’t dated since—she fears men, she says—and adds that she’s been suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
After hearing about GT’s previous coverage of Garcia from a family friend, Martha called me to talk about her experience. She remembers feeling shaken when she learned that Garcia, who began his career in San Diego, had landed a new job in 2011—in spite of his track record. After she found out about Garcia’s career move, Martha says she and a friend warned a Santa Cruz official about Garcia’s past, but they never heard back.
“I’m glad that he was forced to resign,” Martha says now. “But of course, he gets his full pension.”
According to public records, Garcia received $110,000 last year—most of it from the retirement system for San Diego, where he worked for 20 years, and the rest from the city of Santa Cruz, via the state CalPERS program.
There is no evidence that Santa Cruz strayed from typical employer practices in hiring Garcia. Still, the story raises interesting questions about how much cities learn about potential employees before bringing them onboard.
After weeks of looking for a way to speak with Garcia, I stopped by his home to see if he would be willing to speak with me, or provide any contact information so that we could talk later.
“No,” Garcia told me at the door. “You shouldn’t come here.”
In 2008, Martha says she was going through a divorce from her alcoholic husband when she told Garcia she wanted to leave her job. She planned to take her two kids and move to Northern California to be closer to her mother, according to interviews with GT and documents from nine years ago, when she filed a complaint about Garcia’s conduct in Vista.
Martha says Garcia told her she couldn’t leave and repeatedly took her out to lunch, begging her to tell him what was wrong. She finally told him about her rocky marriage and looming divorce. Garcia was the second person she ever told, after her therapist. Martha says her boss thanked her for opening up and told her he could help her because he was “practically a psychologist,” given his master’s degree in organizational psychology. Garcia started talking about getting a divorce himself, although Martha insisted that she wasn’t comfortable hearing about it and that he should seek counseling, she says.
One day, Garcia took off Martha’s shoes in his office and kissed her, she says. Partly given the tumult in her life from the divorce, Martha says she felt confused, trapped and scared. She says that when she tried to leave either her job or the relationship, Garcia would shove papers off his desk and yell at her for betraying him and not caring about him. She says Garcia told her she couldn’t go to Human Resources about their relationship.
Martha began having panic attacks and vomiting due to lack of sleep, according to her written chronology from that time. “He knew that I was in a very vulnerable place,” she tells GT. “He would not let me out of the relationship. I used to cry.”
Martha finally did go to HR, and ultimately resigned under duress days later, she says, at the end of 2009. A nervous breakdown left her in bed for seven weeks, she says. Garcia left the city of Vista a few months later. The city adopted a fraternization policy later that year.
Vista’s city manager declined to answer any questions about Garcia or the circumstances surrounding his departure.
Martha also filed complaints with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) against both Garcia and Vista. An investigator did not establish evidence of any illegal activity, but he told Martha it would be very difficult for Garcia to find work in the next three years while the agency kept the complaint on file, which she took comfort in.
But that didn’t turn out to be the case.
Santa Cruz officials say they had never heard Martha’s experience.
“I know it’s one side of the story—at HR, we always try to think, ‘What’s the other side of the story?’” says Santa Cruz Human Resources Director Lisa Murphy, who was not on staff when Garcia was first hired. “But even on that surface, it’s a pretty disturbing story.”
Bernal says he wasn’t aware of any behavioral issues, either when Garcia was first hired or when Bernal promoted him from parks superintendent to parks and recreation director in 2016.
Two years after that promotion, Bernal asked Garcia to resign from the city of Santa Cruz because of a complaint under the city’s Respectful Workplace Conduct policy, which outlines a number of behaviors deemed unacceptable.
Bernal says that no criminal activity was involved in the incident. The complaint apparently pertained to romantic advances that Garcia made toward a lower-level city employee.
“When this occurred, I thought it was just really bad judgment,” Bernal says. “I was really surprised by it. Even just to go out with someone to a restaurant and have drinks, I wouldn’t have done that. If I had heard that, that would’ve been not a good thing from my perspective. But this went beyond that.”
Bernal adds that the situation escalated from there, and the two went back to a private residence.
When told about the circumstances of the Santa Cruz complaint, Martha was happy to hear that things ended there.
“It sounds like he didn’t get far with that woman,” she says.
Santa Cruz doesn’t make public information requests for state DFEH complaints as part of its hiring process. Neither do other local governments, like Scotts Valley, Capitola and Watsonville, GT has learned. That’s partly because—without knowledge of a particular complaint, and the complainants’ permission—any request would have likely turned up little useful information, according to DFEH officials.
Garcia started work at the city of Santa Cruz in 2011, just over one year after he left the city of Vista. In 2012, Martha found out from family friend Larry Peterson, who lives in Santa Cruz, about Garcia’s new job. Peterson emailed an employee of the city manager’s office with information about Martha’s experience with Garcia, and a copy of her DFEH complaint.
At that point, Santa Cruz officials could have followed up to get Martha’s permission to access her file, which she says she would have consented to. Peterson never heard back.
HR Director Murphy joined the city two years later. She says that, generally speaking, when Santa Cruz hires a supervisor or department head from another city, her department is limited in the information it can learn from an applicant’s previous employer. For instance, she may not be able to learn the nature of an employee’s departure from a previous job.
And the same goes for a former Santa Cruz employee who’s looking for work somewhere else.
“Unless there’s a signed release from the candidate saying you can release and say whatever you want, we’re only limited to saying your years of employment and what your position was. Even today, that’s how we operate,” she says. “Now, we can’t tell your salary, but we used to be able to tell your salary.”
That means that an employee who left under the same circumstances that Garcia did could potentially find work again without worrying that the reasons for his departure would surface in another employer’s hiring process.
Bernal argues that in this instance, a recruiter would likely find out about Garcia’s forced resignation from Google searches and news coverage. GT uncovered the reason for the departure in June—more than a year after Garcia left.
Even without GT’s coverage, Bernal argues that a recruiter would have likely seen Garcia’s brief two-year run as a department head as a potential red flag. In that scenario, Bernal says, recruiters may call to ask privately if there were other reasons for the leadership change.
But if short tenure is a red flag, Santa Cruz leaders might have missed similar indicators when they hired Garcia in 2011. Garcia worked for the city of Vista for less than two and a half years. Prior to that, he worked for the city of Santee for a few months. Before that, he worked for many years as San Diego’s deputy parks director, a lucrative position in California’s second-largest city.
Nonetheless, Danettee Shoemaker—who served as Santa Cruz parks director prior to Garcia and oversaw his 2011 hiring—says there are a variety of reasons someone might leave a job, like looking for a change of pace or scenery.
She adds that if anyone has any information about ways for local governments to learn more about applicants from previous employers or from other sources, they should let the city of Santa Cruz know.
“People are pretty limited on what they can share,” she says. “The law protects the applicant more than employers.”