Editorial: A troubling trend in public employment contracts


The school community may never know the details behind the agreement between the Portola Valley School District and its superintendent, Lisa Gonzales, to part ways earlier this month. But that's not necessarily a problem: Voters elect school board members to hire and fire the district's top administrator, and not all choices for that important position work out.

What is a problem, however, is the lack of openness and public disclosure about the nature of a top leader's departure, even when a large sum of taxpayer dollars is involved – an increasingly common situation, thanks to a growing trend in writing employment contracts and separation agreements.

When the district announced Ms. Gonzales' departure in a written statement released on her last day of employment, the cagily worded release said she was "resigning to take on a greater leadership role" in the Association of California School Administrators.

It didn't say, however, that the district would be writing her a check for six months' salary, amounting to $91,500 – a payout required under terms of her contract only if she were fired without cause.

In the "mutual separation agreement," which the Almanac was provided upon request, it's clear that her work with the state association was not the prompt for her exit from the district. But point 5 of the agreement requires the district to specifically use that blatant deception in explaining Ms. Gonzales' departure, and forbids the district and Ms. Gonzales from making any statements "by which one of the parties disparages the other or has the effect of damaging in any way the reputation of, or otherwise working in any way to the detriment of, the other party."

The agreement is, sadly, reflective of a growing trend that places more importance on protecting the reputation – and by extension, the future marketability – of a top public administrator than on the public interest. While a degree of protection for employees is justified, the total suppression of information that might shed light on systemic problems in a public agency, or help another public agency determine whether a job candidate should be hired, doesn't serve the public well.

Another example of this trend was the amendment written into former Portola Valley town manager Nick Pegueros' contract just months before his "involuntary resignation" in August. The amendment banned the council, Mr. Pegueros and town staff from talking to the public, the press or other town employees about what might have led to his termination. And he, too, walked away with a hefty pay-out: about $100,000. He now is working in a high-level, high-paying interim position with the city of Menlo Park, with residents and fellow staff members in the dark about why he was shown the door in Portola Valley.

There's an interesting discussion on the Almanac's Town Square forum about Ms. Gonzales' separation-agreement provisions that require silence on the circumstances of her departure. One poster had an idea worth considering: the inclusion in high-level public employee contracts of a provision requiring "full public disclosure of the circumstances surrounding departure or termination" if the departing administrator is to receive a severance pay-out. Another poster dismissed this idea, saying that the terms in the separation agreement are consistent with "well-established best practices" in such employment and separation proceedings.

Perhaps that assertion accurately reflects conventional thinking in this area. But we challenge its validity by asking: Best practices for whom? Who is served by such provisions? The departing employee, yes, but certainly not the school community, or the taxpayers, or a future employer. The integrity of the democratic process thrives only when the public and public officials have access to the information needed to make smart and responsible decisions. Provisions that deprive us of such information have no place in high-level administrators' contracts and separation agreements.

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15 people like this
Posted by Stu Soffer
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Oct 23, 2015 at 12:31 pm

Stu Soffer is a registered user.

As Shakespeare aptly foretold: There's something rotten in Denmark.

I broached this phenomenon in my post (How to Hire a City Manager Web Link).

The framework of contracts needs to change. The interview, selection, employment agreement and performance reviews should reward exceptional returns, not incentivize poor performance. Our current employment agreements should not be an a-priori pathway to rewards for dubious management performance.

We should hold city councils and other elected oversight bodies accountable for poor decisions in hiring and sweeping under the rug those decisions.

10 people like this
Posted by Scott
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Oct 23, 2015 at 1:18 pm

I agree that this sort of secrecy, which seems to be becoming increasingly common, is problematic. Even if we say "let the private sector do what it wants", for officials serving the public there needs to be a higher standard of openness, especially in the case of severance payouts. Why should someone's good reputation be preserved if they aren't deserving of that reputation, and then their next employer has to find out the hard way why they were let go from their previous job? Indeed, there should be pride in openness, not a reflexive secrecy, on the part of those involved!

2 people like this
Posted by whatever
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 24, 2015 at 8:57 am

Always amazed at how often this quote by the late President Warren Harding makes sense.

“I am not fit for this office and never should have been here.”

Like this comment
Posted by Norman
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 24, 2015 at 1:56 pm

It ain't their money so they don't care. And we keep electing them so shame on us.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Oct 26, 2015 at 12:55 pm

The editors are being generous when they write that in a "cagily worded release . . . it's clear that her work with the state association was not the prompt for her exit from the district."

The trustees of the Portola Valley School District were evasive, dishonest, and lacking integrity.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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