“As naïve as it may sound, I’m still hopeful that I can get my job back,” said John Skeel. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”
The gloves came off last week in what’s shaping up as a battle royale between the El Dorado Hills Community Services District board and their soon-to-be-former General Manager John Skeel, who was placed on leave June 20, less than six months after being hired.
Skeel drew first blood, breaking media silence in a local TV piece last Tuesday and following with a press release and local media interviews Thursday.
Skeel’s willingness to discuss details of his brief experience in El Dorado Hills allowed the heretofore silent CSD board some legal latitude to explain its actions. Board President Guy Gertsch relented to Village Life’s standing plea for the board’s side of the story in an attorney-approved written response limited to topics addressed in Skeel’s media blitz.
Gertsch seemed relieved to be able to defend his board, which found itself on the receiving end of a no-confidence vote by its employees union, the target of an increasingly frustrated public and, last week, the subject of a sensational local television piece.
Skeel insists he wants his job back, but the tenor of the discussions and knowing nods from their respective attorneys indicate that Skeel is finished at the CSD. What remains to be determined is whether the board can demonstrate that Skeel violated the terms of his three-year, $126,500/year contract; if not, they will have to buy him out.
The fact that both sides have “lawyered up” points to the likelihood that the matter will be settled in court. But CSD officials told Village Life that they believe they have sufficient evidence to terminate.
“There’s a lot more out there,” said Director Noelle Mattock.
In Skeel’s telling, the root of the problem was communication: too much in some areas and not enough in others. He portrays his arrival as an industry veteran wanting a stricter chain of command, but facing resistance and a lack of goals and direction.
Skeel claims he inherited a dysfunctional organization, where many problems stemmed from a micro-managing board accustomed to controlling day-to-day operations of departments with long-standing vacancies at the management level. He alleges that Human Resources Manager Tracy Lynn Lowry, who was responsible for finding and vetting Skeel, was complicit with the board and undermined his effectiveness.
CSD legal counsel Bob Thurbon confirmed he is currently reviewing a claim against Skeel for allegedly retaliating against Lowry for disclosing illegal acts at the district.
Four weeks after Village Life broke the story, and one day after Skeel appeared in a CBS 13 nightly news feature in which local anchor Pallas Hupé concluded, “It sounds like someone is hiding something,” Skeel issued a press release reiterating his mystification at being asked to step aside, and announcing that recent developments made it clear that the CSD board doesn’t want him back.
Skeel told Village Life he went public in a last-ditch effort to create a groundswell of support in the community and to correct “misinformation and unfounded rumors” that he left of his own accord.
Skeel steadfastly insists he was never informed of any problem with his performance, and that the events of June 20, when he was instructed to meet Board President Guy Gertsch at district legal counsel Bob Thurbon’s office and was told, “It’s just not going to work,” caught him completely off guard, especially since he’d recently received positive feedback from board members.
“No explanation was offered,” he said. “Thurbon told Guy they’d have to come up with a story for why I was on administrative leave.”
Skeel was relieved of his keys and his district-provided cell phone, then instructed not to return to the office.
“That was the first indication that anything was wrong,” said Skeel.
But the CSD’s response describes Skeel as a floundering general manager struggling to grasp his new position, battling communication breakdowns with staff and the board, resulting in stalled projects, meetings not scheduled and closed session vitriol.
“It should not have come as a surprise,” said Gertsch, who insists that his board made its dissatisfaction abundantly clear in “one-on-one meetings, committee meetings, board meetings and closed sessions.”
Gertsch also points to a meeting Skeel requested with Thurbon, seeking advice on his situation at the district.
Thurbon confirmed the meeting and the subject matter with Village Life, but said he couldn’t share details of the conversation.
Yet Skeel insists that the board never informed him he was in trouble. “In all the board meetings, all the closed sessions, it was always, ‘you’re doing a great job,’ ‘we like what you’re doing,’ ‘keep doing what you’re doing,’” said Skeel.
Skeel concedes that comments from individual board members in closed sessions “could be described as negative,” but insists that none of the objections were serious: “Why couldn’t you have this meeting, why did you do it this way, what about that e-mail.”
The negative feedback was limited to what Skeel considers “matters of style; the way I was handling the leadership role. None if it was serious.”
Several of Skeel’s comments to Village Life indicate he was in fact aware that the board’s opinion of him was slipping, and that his job might be in jeopardy.
Skeel said he asked Director Wayne Lowery in late May or early June “point blank if something was up.” Lowery told him “not to worry, your job is safe,” Skeel said.
Reached by phone, Lowery said he befriended Skeel and wanted him to succeed, “But I would never have said his job was safe, you just don’t say things like that.”
Skeel subsequently met with Gertsch and shared concerns that the board was giving him “the cold shoulder.” “He gave me no indication that anything was wrong,” said Skeel. “He told me ‘you’re doing a great job, keep on doing what you’re doing,’”
“I went home that night and told my wife not to worry, that everything was fine,” he continued. “I concluded that this group was just having a hard time getting used to me.”
Gertsch said he always tried to encourage Skeel, but “I also pointed out areas of concern and provided guidance on numerous issues.”
Skeel and his attorney laid out a timeline that highlighted communication problems beginning in February and concluded that the board lost confidence in Skeel and stopped listening to him some time around April.
“The board never stopped listening and providing guidance to Mr. Skeel,” said Gertsch. “In fact we were all listening very intently to his comments and watching his actions, which eventually led to our concerns.”
In February, just his second month on the job, Skeel publicly questioned what constitutes a compensable board meeting. (Board members earn $100 per meeting, up to six meetings per month. Lowery refuses the compensation. Director Tony Rogozinski donates it to charity.)
The March board meeting minutes indicate disagreement on several topics. Directors Bill Vandegrift and Noelle Mattock complained that staff had been instructed by Skeel not to talk to them.
Mattock called it a breakdown in communication and demanded that it get fixed.
Later in the meeting, Vandegrift cited Teen Center issues that were being ignored, questioned why a Parks and Planning meeting hadn’t been scheduled and criticized the delayed opening of Lake Forest Park.
“Where is the leadership?” he asked.
Also in March, Skeel proposed a board workshop on roles and responsibilities. That effort resulted in a poorly received Policy Governance presentation by former Roseville city manager Mike Shellito, the gist of which was that board members should stick to policy and keep their fingers out of day-to-day operations, which they should trust to their general manager.
But trust in their general manager seemed to be waning.
Goals and objectives
Skeel alleges that the board never followed through on contract-mandated goals and objectives that were supposed to be agreed upon in his first 30 days.
Gertsch claims that Skeel was unresponsive. “The board was left to draft his goals and outcomes.”
A three-month performance evaluation lasted 20 perfunctory minutes, said Skeel, and consisted of a single typed page containing nothing of substance. All copies were destroyed afterward, he claims.
Gertsch assured Village Life that the district has a copy of Skeel’s evaluation, and that it contains “issues that needed improvement with examples of each of our concerns.”
More time needed
Skeel insists he told board members when he was hired that it would take “a good year to 18 months” to assess the organization, develop relationships and build respect in the district.”
“It was slow going with this group, two in particular,” he said.
Gertsch countered that his board hired a 23-year veteran in the Parks and Recreation field who had plenty of time to figure out his job. “Our constituents should expect a return on investment equal to his six-figure salary and benefits package.”
But Skeel struggled with “even the most basic issues or problems,” said Gertsch. “His response was, ‘Well I’ve only been here x months.’”
Skeel alleges that the board kept him in the dark on important matters, and provided no direction on what it expected of him regarding staffing matters, the union, the community “or any of the projects for that matter,” said Skeel, then corrected himself. “During the interview process they shared some of the concerns they had with the prior GM … some of that was staffing matters, and how they’d like to see things in the future.”
“To the contrary,” said Gertsch. “He was provided explicit and clear direction on numerous occasions regarding union issues, staffing, community issues, projects and vision for the district.
“In fact, on several occasions, he said it was unnecessary for the board to provide direction and additional information because he got all of the information [he needed] from the interview process and his contract,” he continued.
Gertsch said Skeel “either refused or flatly ignored” requests to schedule committee meetings, citing a Village J Park strategy session as an example.
Skeel accused the board of “meeting for the sake of meeting,” without sharing background information in advance so that staff could do the necessary research, prepare reports and create an agenda.
He cited Director Bill Vandegrift as the worst offender. “Billy requested a Parks and Planning meeting to address a complaint from a resident,” said Skeel. “But he wouldn’t tell me what the complaint was or who the resident was. That type of information was consistently withheld.”
Skeel rejects the notion that he got too close to his employees. “Business 101 is that you build morale with employees,” he said. “You give them respect, listen, show trust.”
Skeel said the board considers its staff is “somehow overpaid or underworked,” and “isn’t getting the job done.”
Shortly after his arrival, Skeel said he conducted individual interviews with each employee.
“I saw something completely different when I got here,” he said. “Sure, there’s room for further efficiencies, but they work hard.”
His assessment of the organization revealed, “We were clearly understaffed” and included a plan of action that called for some hiring. He said he shared that with the board repeatedly, but was unable to affect any change.
Gertsch acknowledged receiving “a couple vague plans” but contends that Skeel couldn’t justify the positions. “He was unable to address questions like what they would do, options for filling the position, ROI and cost benefits.”
The board had instituted a wage and hiring freeze, and wouldn’t agree to any of Skeel’s proposed hiring, not even part-timers. With no department heads in the Parks or Recreation Departments, and the Planning Department shuttered, Skeel contends that staff was starved for direction.
Gertsch replied “Any lack of direction by employees is the direct reflection of Mr. Skeel’s abilities as a leader. We provided Mr. Skeel with explicit directions and expected him to execute and direct his staff.”
Skeel put together a preliminary budget that honored the district’s salary freeze with two exceptions. He tried to get a raise for Darrah Ramsbotham, who Skeel said has been carrying the Parks Department since the retirement of its leader Kent Oakley.
He also increased the hours of part-timer Jill Thomas, who “was working additional hours without compensation, because there was a need and those hours were bringing in money,” said Skeel. “So I increased her hours in the budget.”
The board pulled both of those raises out in the final budget after Skeel was gone.
“Darrah’s raise was retroactive to July 2010 and Jill’s hours would have made her eligible for benefits and union membership,” said Mattock. “John went behind our backs and buried all this in the budget, then denied it.”
Botched benefits reform
“The union, CalPERS and the CSD had agreed to carve the managers out of the employee’s union before John arrived,” said Thurbon. “You don’t want your managers in the same union as the staff, and the timing was good because the positions are vacant right now, no one is affected.”
Thurbon said the multi-year effort was progressing nicely until Skeel arrived.
Skeel told Village Life he was responsible for getting union leadership to give up the managers as members of their union, “which I thought was a major coup,” he said.
The problem was that the CSD board had planned to require all new employees to contribute toward their retirement, a detail Skeel claims he was unaware of.
Both Gertsch and Thurbon said Skeel botched the negotiation. “Skeel’s actions and promises on behalf of the district resulted in the union backing out of the agreement,” said Thurbon.
Skeel blames the board for not informing him of their plans, and thus stymieing his hiring plans, and said the issue typified the types of communication problems he experienced in the early going.
Skeel came in asking for frequent one-on-one meetings with the directors, but said he soon found that not all board members would meet with him.
Gertsch admitted frustration with the GM, who despite “explicit direction from board members” to collectively work with them, kept Gertsch as his primary point of contact.
“One board member’s comments don’t constitute the direction of the board,” said Gertsch.
Skeel said his communications with Gertsch and Tony Rogozinski were good, but Vandegrift was “difficult to pin down” and “sometimes difficult.”
Director Mattock “wouldn’t meet me at all,” he said. “I could tell something wasn’t right between us.”
Gertsch explained later that Mattock ceased individual contact with Skeel based on accusations Skeel made in closed session. He said he couldn’t expound.
Both sides acknowledge that communications broke down, and that district was not always operating effectively this year. Each blames the other.
Skeel contends that “a lot of things had been dropped” before he arrived, and that more got done in the last six months than the year before he took the helm. “There were no directors,” he said. “Staff had been reorganized in such a way that I guess the board felt it was better.”
“There was a lack of understanding on the effect of those vacancies on morale, and on the ability to get anything done.”
Gertsch countered: “All the projects and work accomplished in the past six months are a result of work and planning done prior to him joining the district.”
Skeel said that three-month in, he took matters into his own partially tied hands and started holding separate weekly meeting with the parks and planning departments. “I reached out to developers … and took some initiative in marketing and promotions.
“I shared all this with the board,” said Skeel. “The more I learned about what was and wasn’t going on here, the more I talked to developers and just generally dug in, the more I realized how much had been dropped.”
“This is all new information for the board,” said Gertsch.
Skeel said that projects started getting done despite inadequate staff, resources, and despite lack of direction from the board. “I felt like I was starting to build momentum, then June 20 happened.”
Village J Park
Serrano officials approached the district in April, wanting to finalize plans for Village J Park, located on Serrano Parkway near Bass Lake Road.
Skeel said he learned that the board approved the first plan, known as the “dumbbell design,” in 2008 so that Serrano’s county entitlements didn’t expire.
But the board preferred a joint use effort with the Rescue Union School District that consolidates school and park allotments, creating a larger, more versatile park area, called the “preferred” plan.
Several frantic meetings followed, he said. The board hadn’t approved the preferred plan, so Skeel went to the Planning Commission with Thurbon and school district officials to lobby for the matter to be put on hold until his board and the school district could decide how to proceed.
“The board should have been on top of this and they weren’t,” said Skeel. “I didn’t hear about it until April, when Serrano called.”
Gertsch would only say, “This is a complex issue that based on his comments he does not have a good understanding of.”
“We received feedback from the commission stating he was not able to effectively communicate our position. Despite that they granted a continuance based on contact they had received directly from CSD board members.”
“I moved my family here … with the expectation that I’d have at least three years,” said Skeel. “If the board isn’t going to give me those three years they better give me a darn good reason why … or buy me out.”
He insists he’d rather stay and do the job. To make that work, “We’d have to sit down and discuss our expectations openly and honestly,” something he said has never happened.
“At some point the paid leave ends and I’ll need to get a job,” said Skeel. “It can take years to find a job in my field, and a situation like this looks bad to any future employers.”
Skeel concluded the interview, saying, “Wayne (Lowery, the former GM) wasn’t able to meet their needs. They were convinced through the interview process that I would. I thought so as well, but … they made that impossible.”
The lawyers have another meeting scheduled. The matter could be decided as soon as this week.