This is part one of a two-part series on the city of Santa Cruz’s harassment policy. — Editor
That’s how Santa Cruz City Manager Martín Bernal describes the current work environment at City Hall in his cover letter atop a new report investigating the conduct of two Santa Cruz city councilmembers.
“It is imperative that we refrain from engaging in conduct that might be reasonably perceived as abusive, or that which may create an intimidating and uncomfortable working environment or cause morale problems,” Bernal writes in the letter.
The much-anticipated report detailed employee complaints that the city’s Human Resources Department received earlier this year concerning the conduct of councilmembers Drew Glover, who was elected in November, and Chris Krohn, who was elected in 2016. It all started at a February City Council meeting, when Mayor Martine Watkins referenced “perceptions” that Krohn and Glover had been bullying her because she’s a woman. She attributed that observation to people in the community, but she didn’t deny it, either. As reported in a GT cover story at the time (“Bully Pulpit,” 3/6/19), other politicians and community members echoed Watkins’ concerns—among them, county Supervisor Ryan Coonerty, former Mayor Cynthia Chase and former Councilmember Richelle Noroyan.
The new report, which was released last week, deemed that claim unsubstantiated. But the report also addressed other complaints against Krohn and Glover—both of whom are now facing a combined recall effort—and each had one conduct complaint against them substantiated. Although all five of the complainants were women, independent investigator Joe Rose did not confirm any instances of gender discrimination.
In his cover letter, Bernal writes that morale at City Hall “has suffered considerably” in the current work environment. “This is completely unacceptable,” he adds.
The report attempts to lay out what the city can do better in the future, including tips for councilmembers like Krohn and Glover, but also for Bernal and Watkins.
“There’s work to do,” Watkins tells GT. “I know the report findings have recommendations. I’m 100% open to that, and I hope my colleagues are as well.”
It’s not clear whether the report will do anything to ease tensions at City Hall.
Less than 24 hours after its release, Glover had two Thursday morning meetings. The first meeting was with Vice Mayor Justin Cummings, City Councilmember Sandy Brown and a city staffer.
Some details of the conversation are unclear, but the meeting became heated, and the staffer became upset. Bernal had a meeting with Glover later that morning. By 11:30 a.m., Bernal had sent out a message to employees across the city outlining new instructions for interacting with Glover. Effective immediately, the only employees who were to interact with Glover would be department heads, Bernal and the assistant city manager.
“I felt like I had a duty and responsibility to ensure that it didn’t happen again with any other staff,” Bernal says of the reported heated exchange. “But I did tell him in my conversation that I was going to do that, because I didn’t get any response from him with respect to taking any accountability at all.”
The decision has frustrated Glover.
“I don’t think I can talk about it,” Glover says. “It’s an internal matter. Regardless of the cause of it, I disagree with the decision to do it. For this exact reason—why? What’s going on? Can I talk about it? Probably not. It’s indicative of the way that conflict is dealt with in the city.”
This past November, voters elected Glover, along with Vice Mayor Cummings and Councilmember Donna Meyers.
Glover and Cummings serve in a council majority with Krohn and Brown. Together, the four of them make up the more left-wing faction of Santa Cruz’s all-Democrat city council, although Cummings has shown an independent streak, occasionally serving as a swing vote on the seven-member body.
According to the report, Cummings told the investigator that he’s seen some councilmembers “interrogate” others, in an apparent reference to Krohn and Glover’s style of questioning their colleagues.
Cummings added that when councilmembers start “calling people out,” “grandstanding” or acting “grandiose,” their behavior could be considered “demeaning, humiliating or offensive” to others, and some other councilmembers and many community members feel that these theatrics get in the way of the substance of the meeting.
“That starts to compromise the city’s ability to function,” Cummings said in the report.
Council meetings over the past few months have not just been characterized by clashes between councilmembers, but also by tense exchanges with city staff.
The only conduct complaint against Krohn that was substantiated actually happened at a council meeting. It involved a sarcastic snorting laugh at a meeting after a staffer began an answer with a phrase along the lines of “In my professional opinion.” Krohn says he doesn’t remember that moment, but two witnesses remembered it, and he’s apologized.
The only substantiated claim against Glover was submitted by Councilmember Meyers.
As the appointed independent investigator, Rose looked for possible evidence as he tried to corroborate the narratives in the conduct complaints. The Sacramento-based lawyer did not deem any of the claims unfounded or false.
Responses to the report have ranged from anger at the councilmembers’ behavior to sarcastic indifference about the findings.
Such emotions were on full display on the Santa Cruz and Central Coast Politics Facebook page last week. “My goodness.. so someone’s feelings got hurt on the council?” user Denica De Foy asked facetiously in one comment. Most comment threads devolved into arguments about the recall, for which groups are gathering signatures.
Glover and Krohn both openly admit that they ask tough questions of other councilmembers and staff, and they say it’s their style. Perhaps as a result, meetings have been running long. Under the current council, meetings have been starting as early as 10 a.m. and sometimes going past 11 p.m. The new majority has also directed staff to bring back items to the City Council on tightened deadlines. Bernal hinted in his letter that the current approach doesn’t lead staffers to create their best work, and even suggested that it may open the city up to potential lawsuits.
It’s worth mentioning that the city staff has seen two recent high-profile departures.
Although neither mentioned the current work environment as a reason for leaving, former Santa Cruz Assistant City Manager Tina Friend took a pay cut to become city manager for nearby Scotts Valley in June, and Finance Director Marcus Pimentel left this month for an administrative post at the Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency.
Krohn and Glover both believe their approach is good for the city, and Krohn says he wants to make sure that important policy work is done in public.
Glover says that he knows tough conversations can make people “uncomfortable,” but he’s repeatedly argued that it’s time to move away from the notion that being uncomfortable is necessarily a bad thing. He also says he doesn’t want to be “a rubber stamp” for staff recommendations.
“That’s one thing I’ve become known for in my time on the council, is asking tough questions,” Glover says.
CLASH AT CITY HALL
Just after 11:15 p.m. on Feb. 1, Councilmember Donna Meyers was wrapping up a 45-minute meeting with two community members, both UCSC officials, in a City Hall conference room.
Glover had the room reserved for the next slot, when he planned to meet with three or four of his several interns. Meyers says it was about 12:03 p.m. when they got up to leave—a fact that one of the UCSC officials verified to Rose. (Glover remembers the time being closer to 12:10.) When Meyers and the community members opened the door to leave, they found Glover standing in the doorway, where he expressed his disapproval that Meyers had gone over her time, and taken up some of his.
“We’re done. I’m sorry that we ran a bit late,” Meyers remembers telling Glover, according to the report.
“This is very inappropriate that you don’t respect the calendar for the meeting,” he responded in Meyers’ recounting. The community members, who go unnamed in the report, felt uncomfortable as they squeezed by, cautiously sliding out around either side of Glover and into the hallway. Meyers apologized again, waiting for Glover to back up. She remembered it being difficult to get out of the room. Meyers said that as she walked toward her office, Glover followed her, repeating his frustration and saying that she wasn’t appreciating or valuing him.
Partly based on witness testimony, Rose substantiated the claim and wrote that Glover had embarrassed Meyers by being “needlessly and unjustifiably antagonistic.” Rose wrote that the encounter did long-term damage to Glover’s working relationship with Meyers. The newly elected council had only met twice at the time the run-in occurred.
Glover contends, however, that even before their run-in at City Hall, he already had an icy relationship with Meyers, who declined to comment for this story. Meyers also had a second claim against Glover, which went unsubstantiated.
Glover says he’s not sorry about what happened that winter afternoon, but he is sorry that it made Meyers feel uncomfortable, and he wants to ensure that doesn’t happen again.
“It’s a great opportunity and learning experience for me, with engaging with Donna Meyers and potentially other people in general,” Glover says. “I could have brought up the issue of being late in a one-on-one meeting with her, but that would be assuming that we have a relationship that allows us to have one-on-one meetings, which I don’t believe that we do. And that comes from our ideological differences, her behavior towards me, her perception of my behavior towards her. It’s just an uncomfortable situation.”
In addition to the two substantiated complaints against Glover and Krohn, there are six other claims in the report, including three informal claims initiated by Watkins. The mayor tells GT that when she first made her comments, she didn’t realize that they would spur an investigation, but according to a city memo from Human Resources, the follow-up is required under California law. It’s Watkins’ understanding that the investigation began as a result of other complaints, starting with one the following day.
Some of the complaints detailed multiple instances of conflict. One female staffer who came forward recounted to Rose, through tears, Glover’s “really upsetting” pattern of questioning her morals, character, professionalism, competence, and ethics.
That was one of several complaints that went unsubstantiated.
Former mayor Chase, who has criticized Glover’s and Krohn’s styles of discourse, says that it is important to look at the bigger picture of all complaints and their context, even though the investigator didn’t establish any evidence of gender discrimination. A clear pattern of problematic behavior starts to emerge, she says.
“A lot of it is just being able to find evidence to prove that things happened,” says Chase, who has cited the behavior of her colleagues—Krohn included—as a reason she didn’t run for re-election last year. “I don’t know all of the circumstances. But I do know that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. If more than one person complained, that shows a pattern of behavior, and that’s troubling.”
The Rose Report noted that Watkins didn’t reach out to Krohn and Glover in advance of going public, or try to mediate her concerns in private conversation before her remarks.
Even though the mayor’s own complaints weren’t substantiated, Watkins doesn’t have any regrets about speaking up. She says that her words created a space for other women to come forward, including women who otherwise may not have. (The staffer who came forward the day after the mayor, for instance, had her complaint substantiated, Watkins notes.)
Afterward, Krohn sent two emails to the mayor hoping to discuss the matter and never heard back. Watkins says HR advised her not to respond until the report was finished, as there would be an opportunity for dialogue at that time. The report’s release, she adds, took longer than anyone anticipated.
As it considers possible next steps, the City Council will have an opportunity to address the matter, and could even issue a public censure—a form of reprimand—against the two councilmembers.
But the report also sheds light on a few possible procedural flaws.
Cummings says one takeaway from the investigation is that neither he nor Glover received a copy of the city’s Respectful Workplace Conduct Policy until they were more than a couple of months into their terms. Cummings received his copy in late February. Glover received his copy in March, after complaints had begun rolling in. Glover and Krohn both describe the on-boarding process as terribly inadequate.
Be that as it may, Watkins says that everyone on the council is an adult, and they should know how to behave like it.
Glover, for his part, notes that the concept of conduct policies is not new to him, given that he sees himself as “someone that supports worker rights and policies that support workers.”
But it’s still difficult for Cummings to put the on-boarding process and timeline out of mind when trying to figure out how to think about Glover’s alleged violation.
“If someone breaks a rule, you should sit them down and let them know they did something wrong,” Cummings says. “And if it continues, then you should do something.”
Some Krohn and Glover supporters have groaned at the Rose Report’s $18,000 price tag, but if the city pays careful attention to pages 123 and 124, it could get its money’s worth.
The report’s final section has five recommendations, all of which Human Resources Director Lisa Murphy has signed onto. One is that the City Council should receive immediate training in three areas, including Santa Cruz’s Respectful Workplace Conduct Policy.
Additionally, Rose wrote that, “Councilmembers should avoid making public accusations of misconduct against one another and against staff without first privately and internally addressing these concerns and attempting conflict resolution and rectification when possible.”
He added that the city should review its post-election on-boarding process for new city councilmembers, and that all councilmembers and “selected staff members should participate in professional mediation and conflict resolution services.”
Glover says that Rose is the third outside expert, in recent months, to recommend that the City Council seek conflict resolution services.
Rose referred all questions for this story to Murphy’s office, which referred GT to Santa Cruz Management Analyst Ralph Dimarucut. Dimarucut says that the city is working on a scope of services to hire a mediator.
The Rose Report mentions the Conflict Resolution Center of Santa Cruz County as a possible resource. Lejla Bratovic, that nonprofit’s executive director, hasn’t heard from the city, but she says that the center does handle work like this.
Bernal says that it has typically been the city’s policy to send councilmembers a copy of the conduct policy after they begin harassment training, which they have six months to complete.
But he says that he’s receptive to making changes, including the ones outlined in the report.
“We’re completely open,” he says. “It’s not like we say, ‘Here’s the on-boarding process. Take it or leave it.’ If [councilmembers] come and say, ‘Hey, I don’t think I got enough information on this,’ then we’ll arrange for something else. We’re always available to them to help them with whatever they have. We make staff available to them all the time. It’s not like it ever ends. There’s a lot to learn and take in when you’re a councilmember, particularly who’s never been a councilmember. It takes a while.”