It took a few months, but a records request we filed about bullying and harassment claims at the city of Santa Cruz finally turned up something unexpected: new details about the abrupt resignation of the city’s former parks director last year.
I’ve now made two of these public records requests, the first in February, to learn about complaints filed under the city’s Respectful Workplace Conduct Policy. The policy, which went into effect at the city in April 2017, garnered attention over the winter, after City Councilmembers Chris Krohn and Drew Glover landed in the spotlight for allegedly displaying sexist behavior.
Mayor Martine Watkins raised the alarm by acknowledging perceptions she said she’d heard from community members that the two men were “intentionally bullying” her because she’s a woman. Krohn and Glover—the council’s two left-most members—have both denied those claims.
I made my original request for bullying and harassment complaints against Glover and Krohn in February. The city claimed that all records were exempt from disclosure, so I made a follow-up request in early March, this time just for the number of complaints against each employee at the city, and for the date of each complaint. In responding to my second request, the city repeatedly said it needed extensions, only to miss its own deadlines and then self-impose new ones when I followed-up.
Now, city officials say that many of those records, including the complaint counts against the two councilmembers, are exempt from disclosure—at least for now. That’s because there are ongoing city investigations into complaints against Glover and Krohn, says City Manager Martín Bernal. “The reason we can’t provide anything on that is they’re not concluded yet,” Bernal says.
But more than two months after I filed that second request, the city has finally turned over information about a separate previously undisclosed complaint against a former employee that isn’t exempt from public records requests, according to Bernal and City Attorney Tony Condotti.
The complaint was against former Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation Director Mauro Garcia. That complaint, which GT has not yet seen in full, was dated March 5, 2018, about three weeks before Garcia announced his surprise retirement last year. Bernal had promoted Garcia, the former parks superintendent, to the director post less than two years prior. Apparently, the complaint and resulting investigation explain why Garcia left so suddenly.
“We accepted his resignation as a result,” Bernal says.
Despite speaking with multiple sources who had professional relationships with Garcia, GT has been unable to reach the former parks director for comment. It’s unclear whether he still lives in the area. “I don’t know where he is or what he’s been doing,” says Bernal, who adds that Garcia’s poor conduct was not at all criminal in nature. Exactly what behavior spurred the complaint and resignation remains unclear.
After Garcia left, both he and Bernal cited personal reasons as the impetus for the parks director’s departure. “Martín has been just awesome,” Garcia told the Santa Cruz Sentinel last year. “But it’s time to go on to the next stage and take care of family business.”
Bernal, for his part, told the daily at the time that Garcia had been “an effective department head. He got a lot of things done.”
Bernal now tells GT that he said those things in order to protect the identity and privacy of the complainant. He adds that the city is weighing similar concerns as officials prepare to respond to a follow-up request we made to learn more about Garcia’s behavior and the circumstances under which he left. Bernal says city officials will have to heavily redact much of the information in its next response.
Other notable complaints against city personnel, Bernal says, were against former Santa Cruz Police Officer David Gunter, who was fired and recently sentenced to house arrest for sexually battering coworkers. The city did not include any information about Gunter in its records response to GT, but Bernal notes that the city did post an investigation into Gunter’s conduct, which garnered media coverage on its website, cityofsantacruz.com.
There may be additional complaints that Bernal and Condotti have deemed exempt from disclosure. Courts have found that public agencies may consider a range of factors in withholding records—for instance, if the complaints are trivial in nature, whether the complaint was sustained, or the rank of the accused official. The higher an official’s status, the more likely it is that the information’s release would serve the public interest. In Santa Cruz, such judgment calls are made by Bernal and Condotti.
The city’s original records response, sent to GT by Condotti, did not reference any information about former parks director Garcia. After weighing the issues involved, Bernal says he thought better of that decision. He ultimately prompted a follow-up release of information about the complaint, partly because he didn’t want to give the appearance that he was hiding anything or protecting anyone. Condotti tells GT, via email, that he believes the city had no legal obligation to issue information about Garcia, but “a decision was made to err on the side of transparency.”
As for the complaints against Glover and Krohn, Bernal says that he expects the investigations to wrap up in the next few months, at which point more information will become available.
The two councilmembers both say they can’t speak about the situation right now. Krohn tells GT via email that based on what he’s heard from attorneys and the city’s human resources department, “This is a confidential issue.”
Glover says he is happy to hear that GT has been digging to learn more. He also says he can’t confirm or deny anything, though he would be happy to discuss once the process is completed.
“As soon as I am given the authority to do so, I will be happy to share anything you’d like,” Glover says. “If there is something going on around Respectful Workplace Policy, I think it’s super important because those policies are rooted in progressive values, and the ability for people to feel good where they are. Regardless of what’s happening, I’m really happy that the policy exists.”