Study describes distrust within city, but finds hope

<i>This post has been corrected, as noted below.</i>

A new city study indicates that while Costa Mesa’s municipal workforce feels disheartened at work, there is still momentum for positive changes.

The 10-page report by Chip Espinoza, a Trabuco Canyon-based management consultant, was posted Thursday on, the Costa Mesa City Employees Assn. website that also contains the union’s side of the ongoing contract negotiations.

The survey, a compilation of interviews with some 300 employees, comes during a historically contentious time in the city, with a City Council majority seeking to reduce rising employment costs and unfunded pension obligations, and instead reinvest in capital improvement projects. The council majority has often clashed with union leaders who want to maintain their members’ benefits.

The report reflects “nothing surprising,” given the overall disenchantment arising in recent years that have seen more than 200 layoff notices — which, city officials have noted, were later rescinded and actually led to only a handful of layoffs — plus the outsourcing of some city services, various budget cuts and an overall “confronting the status quo.”

The report, titled “City of Costa Mesa Listening Exercise Report,” is “the first step toward a preferred future,” Espinoza wrote. “The second step will be to embrace it, sit with it, and commit to doing something about it.”

Espinoza does warn, however, that “The report’s power will be severely compromised if turned into a tool for creating discord or greater polarization” — a point also stressed by city CEO Tom Hatch, who addressed the findings in an email sent Wednesday afternoon to the council and employees.

“While we are an incredibly productive organization with efficient service delivery, we need to improve and build greater trust and cohesion for long-term sustainability and general health,” Hatch wrote. “We all want to be part of a healthy organization that prides itself on quality services and innovation.”

On its website, the employee association, which represents about 200 municipal workers, called the report indicative of “low morale” and a “toxic work environment.”

“The report confirms what employees have been feeling and saying for nearly three years ... [it] revealed a workforce victimized by a repressive and dysfunctional culture,” the site states, calling it a “sanitized” version of the draft completed in June.

Assistant city CEO Rick Francis said that the report had been edited, but that it was “hardly sanitized” and that such an accusation was “groundless” and irresponsible. He sent the union a detailed account of the city’s edits — which included bolding some phrases and summarizing background information — and has asked the group to fix its online “mischaracterization” on its own.

In a phone interview, Espinoza said it’s standard procedure for that kind of report to have a draft. That version was vetted by the CEO’s office, he said, but city officials didn’t change the report’s content.

“The only changes were to clarify a couple of comments and that was it,” Espinoza said. “Other than that, everything was perfect. It was a fascinating study in that they’re a remarkable group of people in the way they work, and their love and care for the city.”


Details of the report

Espinoza’s contract was approved in January at a cost of no more than $39,500. He conducted 28 group interviews involving about 280 employees. He also did an Internet survey for others who couldn’t attend the group sessions. In all, about 323 employees, including some from police and fire departments, participated. Their written and verbal responses were kept anonymous.

He also conducted one-on-one interviews with four of the five council members, and met with the department heads in a workshop titled “Leading in Difficult Times.”

Espinoza asked participants five questions about what “energizes” them in their Costa Mesa jobs, what “de-energizes” them, what they would change to improve the work experience, their biggest challenges and what the leadership and employees need to hear.

Among the report’s findings: Respondents said they enjoyed their co-workers and benefits and feel they are making a difference in the community. The employees added, however, that they are frustrated with the council and don’t feel valued; they also alleged a lack of communication and “culture of distrust.”

Some suggestions included reinstating a flexible work schedule, eliminating micromanaging, being realistic about productivity given a lack of staff, and unifying the council, management and staff.

Challenges included overcoming the “distrust” among the council, management and staff.


Moving ahead, responses

Espinoza said there still “remains energy for positive change. I could see it in the focus groups. Suspicion, reluctance and skepticism characterized the beginning of each session but quickly gave way to curiosity, engagement and hope.”

Employees “are not naive,” Espinoza wrote. “They understand the economic realities that call for change. There is a willingness to be a part of the solution at every level of decision-making.”

The city employee association website states that “hopefully the council and management will take the Espinoza report to heart, acknowledge the amount of damage that has been done, and commit to the rebuilding work that must be done. A good start would be for the city to reconsider its extreme negotiations proposals and instead engage employees at the bargaining table in a way that promotes a culture of cooperation, collaboration and mutual trust and respect.”

Hatch said in his email that he will be creating a team of managers and employees to “discuss the next steps we need to take as an organization to build on this report.” Espinoza will also help in that effort, Hatch said.

“It is clear to me that the key solutions will take time, but the time is now to start,” Hatch added.

Mayor Jim Righeimer on Thursday afternoon said he had not yet fully examined the report, but that in general it’s “good for everyone to know each other’s positions. I think that’s a positive thing, no matter what those positions are.”

Councilwoman Wendy Leece, who often votes against the Righeimer-led council majority, complimented the report.

“Because I’ve been in the minority for quite some time, it was therapeutic to have him listen to my concerns and frustrations, as far as not having enough votes to make a difference,” she said.

Leece said she is “being optimistic on this,” and that it’s a good opportunity to put aside differences and be good listeners.

“This isn’t the end of the story,” she said. “Maybe it’s the beginning.”

[For the record, 12:32 p.m. Oct. 11: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that all five council members were interviewed by Chip Espinoza. In fact, only four of the five were.]