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Rohnert Park's city manager seeks more power over top staff

  • Rohnert Park city manager Gabe Gonzalez (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)

Rohnert Park City Manager Gabe Gonzalez wants to change the city's employment policy to make it easier to dismiss top staff in the future.

He is proposing to make department heads at-will employees rather than employees covered by for-cause agreements that require a lengthy process before someone can be fired.

That would make Rohnert Park's policy the same as Sonoma County's, Santa Rosa's and Petaluma's, among other jurisdictions.

The change would apply only to future hires, though current department heads would be able to switch their statuses to at-will if they wanted.

"The executive level should be held accountable. We provide the leadership and are the management running the organization, so we should be held to a higher accountability," said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez, who is himself an at-will employee the council could let go for any reason, already has full authority to hire and fire staff.

But what he is proposing to the council tonight would exempt top managers from the due process requirements that most other employees enjoy. Those include documenting of work performance problems, mandatory counseling sessions and appeals.

The city needs the flexiblity to act in situations where it wants to alter course, or to respond if somebody is not doing their job well, Gonzalez said.

"It's putting the operational needs of the city first," he said.

The city has four department heads. One of those, Public Safety Director Brian Masterson, was made an at-will employee by the council in 2010, under a prior city manager.

The others could elect to become at-will employees in exchange for being able to negotiate changes to their contracts such as severance clauses, more vacation time or the notice they must receive before dismissal, Gonzalez said.

When Masterson was made an at-will employee, his contract was amended to include a six-month severance package in the event of his being let go.

In 2011, longtime finance director Sandy Lipitz stepped down under what she said was pressure from Gonzalez. Lipitz, a 21-year employee who was popular with staff, filed a lawsuit seeking a severance and damages. The conflict dragged for six months before she announced her retirement.

Gonzalez said Monday that Lipitz's claim for damages against the city is still active so he could not comment on whether that situation was a factor in his proposal.

But he noted the 2010 change made to Masterson's status and said, "The city had already started to move in that direction."

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @jeremyhay.

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