Shortly after returning from a holiday lunch party Thursday at Capers Loft, where approximately 60 city employees shared food and divvied up gifts through a raffle, Alex Gurza went into the 17th floor office of City Manager Ed Shikada and got canned.
There would be no negotiating or reason given for the firing, according to Gurza, who doubled as a deputy city manager and director of the Office of Employee Relations. After leaving Shikada's office, he was greeted by uniformed security guards and escorted out of the building. It was an unceremonious exit for an employee who two months earlier celebrated his 20th anniversary working for the city of San Jose.
But on Monday, Gurza returned to work—at a far lower rung on the totem pole.
Rather than take his usual seat at the bargaining table across from San Jose’s public employee unions, Gurza, who earned more than $222,000 in total compensation last year, has been reassigned to a low-level staff position in the Parks and Rec department. The analyst job in Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services (PRNS) will earn Gurza $62,982.40 annually, or about 72 percent less than what he was making.
Why would Gurza accept such a deal? And why would Shikada feel it necessary to fire Gurza in such a public manner? These are questions many at City Hall have been asking, made more difficult to answer because city officials have deemed the situation a “personnel matter,” thereby shielding information.
But in a phone call Monday evening, Gurza told San Jose Inside his side of the story. Gurza said he was "shocked" when Shikada informed him that he was being relieved of all duties effective immediately. He added that no reason was given.
"When I saw the hallway and I saw the security officers, I was even more shocked," Gurza said, adding that just this past fall he received an "outstanding" performance evaluation.
"I don’t really know what led to this," he said. "I just don’t know."
According to sources at City Hall, Gurza’s removal is part of several odd occurrences. On Tuesday, Shikada, the top appointed city official, will receive his second performance evaluation in as many weeks at the council’s closed session meeting. A second review is nearly unheard of, a source told San Jose Inside, and it could be taken as a sign that council evaluations of Shikada were so unflattering that action could be taken to remove him from his post.
Following the recent victory of Mayor-elect Sam Liccardo, there is some sense that a purge of the previous administration’s top city manager staff is taking place. Doing so could be seen as a way to create a new dialogue with public employee unions, many of which have criticized Gurza and the city for moving forward on pension reform via the ballot box. But the nature in which Gurza was removed from his job has led to speculation that something greater is at play.
Shikada, who declined an interview request, was free to fire Gurza because he was an "at-will" employee as part of the top-level management division known as Unit 99. But the security guard escort was an unusual and unnecessary touch, Gurza said. The rules of the civil service system allowed him to drop back into a previously held position, when he was still a classified employee. In a strange twist, Gurza could soon become part of the Municipal Employees Federation, a union that he sparred with repeatedly over wage cuts and pension reform.
Sources tell San Jose Inside that Gurza caught Shikada off guard by accepting the demotion rather than walking away from the city. While his pay has been reduced to nearly 28 percent of what it was a year ago, city rules allow his pension—and the salary at which it’s calculated—to go untouched.
According to a rubric for Tier-1 employees, “If separation takes place on or after July 1, 2001, Final Compensation is highest average monthly salary during 12 consecutive months.”
That means Gurza’s retirement will be calculated at the $200,000-plus salary he earned last year. He could retire today and receive a six-figure check annually from the city. But each year he remains with the city adds 2.5 percent to his annual pension payout, which caps at 75 percent.
The circumstances of Gurza’s firing caught him and many others at City Hall off guard, including the people who directed him in labor negotiations.
“If what he did was that egregious, I don’t know why the council wasn’t notified before this all became public,” one councilmember told San Jose Inside.
Another source at City Hall tells San Jose Inside that the demotion could be related to two internal investigations Gurza pursued as part of his duties in the Office of Employee Relations.
One inquiry had to do with a group of city employees who attended the 100th Annual ICMA (International City/County Management Association) conference held Sept. 14-17 in Charlotte, N.C. During the trip, the source said, a senior analyst in the city manager’s office, who has since been demoted, threatened another employee. Pam Antil, Gurza’s replacement, allegedly witnessed the threats but declined to cooperate with his investigation.
Other sources at City Hall reached for comment said they could not talk about the alleged incident, and Gurza said he could not comment on the matter.
Below is an email Gurza sent following a phone interview with San Jose Inside:
On Thursday afternoon, December 11th, the City Manager informed me that I was relieved of all of my duties associated with my Deputy City Manager and Director of Employee Relations positions.I was not provided with a reason why I was immediately relieved of both my Director of Employee Relations responsibilities, as well as my Deputy City Manager responsibilities. My Deputy City Manager responsibilities included areas unrelated to labor and employee relations. I was most recently assigned to work with the Department of Transportation, the Environmental Services Department, and the Department of Public Works. In addition, I was recently appointed to the Treatment Plant Advisory Committee (TPAC) and served as City Manager's Office staff to the Transportation and Environment Committee. I recently was informed that I had received an Outstanding performance appraisal rating.Effective Sunday, December 13th, I was placed in the position of Analyst II in the Parks, Recreation, and Neighborhood Services Department (PRNS). (This is the level of position I had when I first started with the City 20 years ago.) I reported to work in this position at 8 a.m. on Monday morning. My new annual pay rate is $62,982.40. This new pay rate represents an approximately 72% reduction in my annual salary. Since this happened so suddenly, I will use my time in the Analyst position to consider my options, while assisting the PRNS department as best I can.I do not know why I was escorted out of City Hall by security officers. Based upon my 19 years of experience working in the Office of Employee Relations, I know that we rarely use uniformed security escorts when someone is removed from their current position and will be placed in a new position. Security escorts are normally used if there is reason to believe there is a concern related to workplace violence or other safety concern, which is absolutely not the case in my situation. In the rare cases we believe a security escort is warranted, one option we have available to us is to coordinate with our Police Department who may provide us with the services of a plain clothes police officer which minimizes the visibility of the escort.