As a rule, City Clerks don’t seek the limelight. But Kimberly Lehmkuhl, the infamous former City Clerk of suburban Pleasant Hill, California, has made a sport of breaking rules and marching to her own drummer. So it’s no surprise her unprecedented job failure and wacky resignation letter made nationwide news.
While public attention to this story has focused largely on Lehmkuhl’s failures and Twitter antics, the enduring lessons of this story have nothing to do with her. Rather, City mismanagement of the problem offers an instructive case study in what-not-to-do when things go wrong.
Why Was a Serious Problem Tolerated for Over a Year?
Lehmkuhl failed to produce City Council meeting minutes during her first year in office. So it’s no wonder residents continue to ask, “How was this allowed to go on for so long? Why wasn’t this problem addressed right away?”
In all likelihood the problem would have continued had it remained under wraps because its root cause is a dysfunctional organizational culture. It was only after the story caught the attention of reporters that the City took action to assign staff to perform essential duties.
Until the press got hold of the story, the situation was allowed to snowball despite the risks and implications of doing so. Such incompetence is cause for serious concern.
Lehmkuhl may be gone, but the root cause of the problem remains.
In early 2013, during Ms. Lehmkuhl’s first few months in office, the problem was clearly apparent. Week after week, month after month, she produced no meeting minutes. Instead of taking steps to ensure the responsibilities of the City Clerk’s Office were accomplished, the only action taken by the City was “talking to” Ms. Lehmkuhl, to no effect.
In essence, City Manager June Catalano and then-Mayor Michael Harris did little more than throw up their hands in helplessness while the public was kept in the dark.
Councilman Michael Harris, who served as Mayor during Lehmkuhl’s first year in office, said “We basically have no control — as we found, unfortunately — or very little control over what the city clerk does.” Ironically, Harris’ excuse-making sounds a lot like Lehmkuhl’s. But Harris’ deflection is absurd. Of course you can’t control the actions of another human being – but there are things you can do to address the business problem at hand.
The throw-up-our-hands-in-helplessness routine is self-evidently bogus and misleading. The City Manager had the authority — and the duty — to ensure the City business was done. Likewise, the City Council had a duty to lead — not just stand by, doing nothing and pleading “there’s nothing we can do.”
In fact there were a lot of things the City could do — and Councilmembers finally did them in January. But they took action only after bad publicity and public opinion forced them to do so.
As a Contra Costa Times editorial put it:
Amazingly, the City Council, city manager and city attorney never alerted the public. Instead, emails obtained through the Public Records Act show, City Manager June Catalano’s staff tried unsuccessfully to privately prod Lehmkuhl to produce. When that failed, Catalano should have stepped up to find a solution, but she didn’t.
It’s unlikely the public will ever know the whole story. But it doesn’t take an expert to see something is seriously wrong when an organization is unable to address problems constructively, particularly when they involve essential business functions.
Dirty Laundry Kept Under Wraps
As is typical of public agencies, Pleasant Hill prefers to downplay problems and, instead, divert attention to “happy talk” topics and feel-good initiatives. The trouble is, when problems are downplayed and residents feel ignored or, worse, bulldozed by City Hall, the relationship between public officials and residents erodes. Trust evaporates. And everything becomes more difficult.
This is why Councilmembers and staff should treat the City Clerk scandal as a learning moment, to be analyzed and its lessons applied to future decision making.
Pleasant Hill residents should demand leadership from their elected and appointed public officials. Ignoring, denying and concealing problems does not constitute leadership and shouldn’t be tolerated. Most importantly, residents must get involved in paying attention to what’s going on at City Hall and play an active role in holding public officials accountable.
Good intentions don’t count. Results do.