City Manager Threatened to Quit Rather Than Meet With Council Over Acevedo Hire
The planned closed-door meeting never happened
Tension between City Council members and interim City Manager Jesús Garza over his surprise hiring of a widely detested former police chief for a new executive position may be loosening up for now, but City Hall sources tell the Chronicle that, just two weeks ago, Garza was threatening to resign rather than be subjected to a closed-door meeting about it.
The drama began at a private meeting between Garza and a subquorum of Council (CMs Natasha Harper-Madison, Ryan Alter, Paige Ellis, Zo Qadri, and Alison Alter) held Monday, Jan. 22. That was three days after news broke that Garza had offered Art Acevedo a high-ranking City Hall job but one day before Acevedo announced he would not take the job.
At the meeting with Garza, CMs were still reeling from a weekend of intense public backlash from community members concerned over Acevedo’s appointment. They wanted answers from the manager about why Acevedo was chosen and, perhaps more importantly, how he was chosen.
The five CMs suggested holding an executive session at the next Council meeting, Feb. 1, to give all 11 CMs an opportunity to talk with the manager about the decision out of the public eye. Within City Hall, the discussion was being described as a “performance review” of the manager.
That description makes the discussion sound disciplinary in nature, but the CMs we talked to agreed that closed-door performance reviews don’t always serve that function. They also provide a venue for CMs to have more candid conversations about policy, legal, and personnel issues – especially in terms of long-range planning. “We used to have these regular updates with the manager in executive session,” Ellis told us, “whether it be quarterly or every six months. For me, it’s just best practice. We should try to talk to the manager at least twice a year. It’s just something we haven’t done this past year.”
Accounts of how exactly Garza threatened to quit differ, but one source said the manager told CMs he would “rather resign” than be called into executive discussion for a performance review. Whatever Garza’s exact words were, the eight City Hall sources we talked to, all of whom had either direct knowledge of the situation or were briefed on it, say the manager’s intent was clear: If Council continued to pursue the private performance review, he would quit.
When, on Jan. 23, Acevedo announced he was no longer interested in the new job Garza created for him, CMs still wanted to hold the executive session to discuss the final months of his tenure, as Council is ramping up to hire a new, permanent city manager sometime between April and June.
CMs in the subquorum met Thursday, Jan. 25, to hash out what they’d discuss with Garza the following week. At that meeting, they decided to email Garza some questions ahead of time, signaling they weren’t solely interested in taking him to task over the Acevedo decision. They also wanted insight into some of the initiatives he had been leading over the past year and how he planned to focus his efforts over the next few months.
Upon receiving the email, our sources say Garza quickly mounted a pressure campaign aimed at dissuading Council from placing the executive session item on their upcoming meeting agenda. Time was of the essence – he received the questions via email late Thursday afternoon; the deadline to make changes to Council’s next meeting was the following day, Jan. 26. Garza would need to convince enough Council members to back off the idea by the next afternoon. So, Thursday night, he began calling them.
Ultimately, they were persuaded. On top of the resignation threat, some CMs feared attempts to hold the manager accountable could hurt the search for a permanent hire by making Council appear difficult to work with. Not only was the Feb. 1 executive session plan tossed, it’s unclear if Garza will ever face one. We contacted each of the five members of the subquorum that initially sought the closed meeting; only CMs Alison Alter and Zo Qadri indicated openness to such a discussion.
“Oversight is a collective effort and I believe it is very valuable for us to be able to talk with one another especially when we are focused on goals of the future,” Alter told us.
A private conversation with the manager could be appropriate, depending on the nature of the discussion, Qadri said. “Council and the public deserve clarity, communication, and transparency.”
Garza did not respond to our questions about the sequence of events leading up to Council’s decision to drop their proposed executive session review of his performance as city manager. Instead, through a spokesperson, he commented on the memo he issued in lieu of the private discussion. “The memo served as a way for the City Manager to share answers with the entire Council.”
Absent an executive session discussion, Council will have to make do with the memo referenced in Garza’s statement. In the memo, the manager provided a high-level overview of many initiatives the city has been working on, like homelessness response, efforts to improve police staffing, and climate resiliency.
To the one question about communication between the manager and Council – the root cause of the latest tensions between Garza and his bosses – he wrote, “While personnel and restructuring decisions are and should be at the discretion of the City Manager as set up by the charter, it in no way means that input is not welcome.”