Fluoride Action Network

Sandy City Council to consider issues related to poor communication with the mayor, reports of low morale

Source: The Salt Lake Tribune | February 26th, 2019 | By Taylor Stevens
Location: United States, Utah

On the heels of a crisis over contaminated water, Sandy’s City Council is scheduled to hear from its staff Tuesday on a number of documents that show evidence of their growing frustration with the city’s inner workings.

The administration recently removed the council and its employees from a city email list, which staff contend had effectively shut down communication on a number of important topics in recent weeks. The body will also consider a separate memo that argues Mayor Kurt Bradburn’s hiring practices have hurt employee morale.

These are “symptoms” of a larger problem, says Council Office Director Mike Applegarth, who penned an interoffice memo on two new administration employees he believes were hired outside of the city’s normal hiring procedures.

“There’s not great communication between administration and the City Council, and to be fair to the administration, the council doesn’t always do a good job of handling the information it receives,” Applegarth told The Salt Lake Tribune on Monday. “That can affect personnel.”

After realizing they weren’t receiving the usual number of emails, two council employees recently found that the mayor’s office had removed the city council and its staff from an email list, according to a strongly-worded, two page memo from Dustin Fratto, the council’s management analyst, and Pam Lehman, the council’s office manager.

“On the surface this may seem inconsequential, but it isn’t,” the memo reads. “This unwarranted action is both detrimental to us as city employees, and to you in your capacity as elected officials of Sandy City.”

Sandy City Deputy Mayor Evelyn Everton told The Salt Lake Tribune that the decision to remove council and staff from the email list was not exclusionary in nature and instead an effort to avoid “clogging up their inboxes.”

“The idea was that the city council director would be able to forward on any pertinent information to them,” she said. “The error that was made is that we didn’t realize that the city council staff members were also taken off, so that has now been rectified and they have been added back to the all department email.”

But staff members noted that before the issue was rectified, they had been left out of information from the city’s human resources department on a proposal for changes to the employee paid time off program, which they said has placed them and other council employees at a “significant disadvantage.”

They also raised concerns about the impact on the city’s legislative process.

“As a Council you should be concerned that the City Administration has made an intentional and calculated decision to exclude you, as the legislative body, from receiving information that may impact the decisions that you’ve been elected to make,” the memo continues. “We continually hear both the Administration and the Council publicly state that open lines of communication between the two branches are of the utmost importance, then behind the scenes things like this continue to happen.”

Councilwoman Brooke Christensen said she views the communication issue as an “oversight” and not an intentional effort to exclude the council from important information — a view echoed by her colleague, Councilwoman Maren Barker.

“Had this been brought to the attention of [human resources] or the mayor’s office prior to having it put on an agenda item, I think it could have been simply fixed without making a spectacle of it,” Barker said.

‘I fear personal attacks’

In a separate interoffice memorandum, Applegarth lays out a number of concerns about two new employees in the mayor’s office. The increased oversight came after a question from a resident during the council’s Jan. 22 meeting about the administration’s hiring practices, he said.

Both the newly-hired project analyst manager and management analyst — who receive a combined $413,520 in salary and benefits — are paid out of a department budget other than the mayor’s. They report to Bradburn and Applegarth argues they should be paid instead from his office’s budget.

One problem with that is that if the mayor’s office were to pay for those positions, it would likely overrun its budget for salary and benefits by the end of the year, he said.

“I honestly don’t know what their motive is, if they had a motive or if it’s just sloppy accounting,” Applegarth told The Tribune. “I’m just pointing out the technicalities,”

Applegarth notes that it is the mayor’s right to make certain appointments but argues that the employees were hired without a competitive process, that the new staff members are being paid above average compensation ranges and that the new positions may not be necessary to the city’s functions.

Those irregularities and “the perception that the new Project Analyst Manager and Project Analyst were hired based on friendship with the Mayor have caused much complaint,” the memo notes, claiming that employees fear retribution if they come forward with their concerns.

An anonymous letter provided to the council and placed alongside Applegarth’s memo also echoed those concerns.

“Mayor shows no trust or appreciation for employee feedback and I fear any personal attacks or attacks to my supervisors if I stand up and say how I feel,” the letter reads.

In a statement provided to The Salt Lake Tribune, Everton didn’t address morale but looked to dispel criticisms that the two new hires were outside normal practices.

“The mayor hired qualified people,” she said, adding that “we’re saving taxpayers about $37,000 under the structure” after two highly-paid employees left and the administration hired the new staff members.

Applegarth’s memo urges the council to address the payroll discrepancies and require adherence to administrative code, as well as to investigate employee morale more thoroughly. He also invites the council, if it’s so inclined, to convene a closed session to discuss his own character and professional competency in light of the report.

“When you stand up for the truth, you get attacked for having a motive,” he told The Tribune of his decision to open himself up to scrutiny. “I just know from my experiences that sometimes the truth hurts and people want to claim that ‘Oh, you’re not really telling the truth. You’re doing that because you like this politician or don’t like that politician.’ And that’s total bogus BS. My obligation is to give the council the best [information] I can, regardless of the consequences to me personally.”

Barker, a Sandy councilwoman, said she think it’s important for the council to have oversight of the administration in some areas but noted that she doesn’t think it has a human resources role, where she believes much of these complaints belong.

“I would love to see more respect for each other and more professionalism between the city council, its members and administration and staff,” she said. “I think these are fine questions to be asking — but without the character-attacking allegations attached.”

‘Put personality aside’

While the increased oversight of Bradburn’s administration may seem politically motivated to some, Applegarth argues it comes after an administration under which many past and present council members had a “high degree of trust” and therefore may not have exercised rigorous scrutiny.

“It seems that the decision to exercise oversight is largely dependent on the trust in the person who occupies the mayor’s office,” the memo states, arguing that the council “should put personality aside and exercise its authority based on the demands of the law, not who occupies the southwest corner of the 3rd floor of City Hall.”

Bradburn in 2017 beat former Mayor Tom Dolan, who spent a generation as Sandy City mayor and was seeking his seventh term in office. Since then, the new mayor has faced a number of controversies.

He made noise quickly by giving himself a $15,000 raise, which he swiftly said was a mistake and proceeded to slash his salary by $43,000.

Soon after, Bradburn came under fire again for his handling of an investigation into a former police chief who was accused of inappropriately touching women. Some council members expressed frustration that Bradburn had directed Sandy police employees to not share any details on the matter, even with them.

Most recently, Bradburn was criticized for his response to a fluoride pump that malfunctioned and flooded parts of the local water system with unsafe amounts of the mineral. Many Sandy residents have expressed frustration that they were allowed to drink possibly tainted water for a week before they heard about the problems, which began because of a power outage at one of the city’s wells on Feb. 6.

Bradburn told the crowd at a President’s Day town hall on the issue that the situation had been frustrating for him, too. He was first told the contamination was isolated to a small area and few residents before learning the problem was bigger.

“As your elected leader, I failed you in several aspects,” he told residents. “One of them being, I wasn’t on top of this.”

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality has cited the city for the high fluoride levels and is determining if Sandy appropriately reported elevated levels of lead and copper. The Sandy City Council has also taken steps toward conducting an independent investigation into the city administration’s response to the issue.

The city public utilities director has stepped away from his duties during that investigation, the scope of which the council is scheduled to consider Tuesday.

*Original article online at https://www.sltrib.com/news/politics/2019/02/26/sandy-city-council/

** See all reports on the Sandy, Utah, event