Sandy • At a sometimes contentious meeting of the Sandy City Council on Tuesday, there was a visible breakdown in communication between the legislative body and mayor’s office.
On the heels of a crisis over contaminated water, the city spent more than two hours discussing the administration’s removal of the council and its employees from a city email list — which staff argues had shut down dialogue on a number of important topics in recent weeks — and a memo asserting that Mayor Kurt Bradburn’s hiring practices have hurt employee morale.
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.
“Here I sit, 23 years of being on the City Council, and I don’t think there’s ever been a time when I have ever seen anything like this,” said Councilwoman Linda Saville-Martinez, who advocated for better communication among the branches following a particularly tense portion of the meeting. “... There’s no communication going on. And in the past, we were a whole. Everybody worked together.”
During the meeting, Bradburn apologized for the email oversight, defended his hiring practices and agreed that there have been communication challenges — responsibility for which he argued rests with both council and administration and could have been handled differently.
“In terms of matters of improving communication going forward, this feels like something that could have been handled relatively easy with just a phone call instead of an agenda item," he said. "So I think we can — maybe we can all acknowledge that there maybe was a less intrusive way to handle this.”
Council Office Director Mike Applegarth, who penned an interoffice memo on two new administration employees that he believes were hired outside of the city’s normal hiring procedures, argued that the two issues the council considered on Tuesday are “symptoms” of a larger problem.
“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.
During public comment, residents expressed frustration at what they viewed as continued efforts by some council members to undermine the administration.
“I just want to remind you, and like it or not, that our city elected our current mayor,” said Sandy resident Dea Theodore, who argued there were more important conversations that should take up council time, like water contamination. “He was elected to do this job. People elected him. They trusted him to make decisions on behalf of our city, including who he hires.”
An ‘oversight’ or a ‘calculated’ exclusion?
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 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 two-page 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 and instead was an effort to avoid “clogging up their inboxes” and was quickly fixed.
“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.”
Staff members argued that before the issue was remedied, 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. 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.
Councilwoman Maren Barker said she views the communication issue as an “oversight” and not an intentional effort to exclude the council from important information.
“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 told The Tribune prior to the meeting.
‘Irregular’ hiring practices?
In a separate interoffice memorandum, Applegarth presented a number of concerns about two new employees in the mayor’s office — increased oversight that he said came after a question from a resident during the council’s Jan. 22 meeting about the administration’s hiring practices.
Both the newly hired project analyst manager and management analyst — who receive a combined $213,178 in salary and benefits per the city’s finance director, though the memo cites a higher number — 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.
He notes that it’s 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. Other city staff noted during the meeting that the budget was not out of compliance.
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.
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.
Bradburn noted at the meeting on Tuesday that he’s aware there are some morale issues that he is working to correct, but that most employees are satisfied with their jobs. He also said he has hired 122 employees since he started last January and that more than 92 percent of those were hired through a competitive process.
“I’m not disputing that there are employee morale concerns,” he said, noting that the city did its first comprehensive employee survey under his leadership. “... We’re working hard to fix it and one of the ways I’m working to fix it is hiring a new set of people from the outside that have employee engagement and community engagement experience, marketing and communications experience, they’re not government employees."
Applegarth’s memo urged the council to address the payroll discrepancies and require adherence to administrative code, as well as to investigate employee morale more thoroughly. He also invited 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.
Barker, a Sandy councilwoman, said she thinks 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 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.”
The council voted to table the discussion on whether to make any budgetary amendments as a result of the memo.
‘Put personality aside’
While the increased oversight of Bradburn’s administration may seem politically motivated to some, Applegarth contends 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 was seeking his seventh term in office, and the new mayor has since 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.
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 earlier this month.
“Our system of government only works when people are able to trust that their elected officials act with integrity and competence,” said Chase Thomas, the executive director of Alliance for a Better Utah. “Mayor Bradburn has been in office for little over a year and has already been at the center of multiple controversies. At this point, we worry that the pattern of troubling and odd behavior from Mayor Bradburn’s office and administration will cause residents to lose trust in their city officials.”
Thomas notes that it’s unclear whether the mayor is solely to blame for the issues but argues the city officials should work to begin restoring the trust and confidence of their residents.