Questions, Confusion Surround Departure of South Lake Tahoe City Manager

On February 6, South Lake Tahoe City Manager Nancy Kerry was placed on “indefinite paid leave” and replaced in the interim by Fire Rescue Chief Jeff Meston. So far, no one has been able to determine the reason behind this decision. Initially, the South Lake Tahoe Tribune says it had trouble even determining the status of Kerry’s employment.

What We Know

A performance evaluation was carried out in October by outside firm Municipal Resource Group, LLC. The results of the evaluation were shared with the council during two closed-door meetings in January and February.

The timing of the evaluation was peculiar because Kerry had received a glowing performance review just four months prior. The city would not say what the results of the latest review showed, nor why it was conducted in the first place.

Toxic Allegations

One possible clue comes from this investigative report by the Tribune.  The publication spoke to seven current and former city employees under condition of anonymity. They described a “toxic” environment created by Kerry, rife with fear, intimidation, and bullying.

"For a lot of employees, they really at times live in fear that if they cross her, she is going to make their lives a living hell," said one former city worker. "She'll talk about you behind your back, she'll slam you, and now you're just on the out. It's yelling. I've been in situations where she absolutely goes ballistic and you just sit there and wait for it."

Kerry said she was “shocked” by the allegations. Again, whether they had anything to do with the decision to place Kerry on leave -- or even whether that decision was voluntary or involuntary -- is unknown.

Residents Want More Transparency

At a special meeting Monday, Feb. 12, constituents and former members of the city council demanded greater transparency on the matter.

"Is it going to be possible for parties involved to waive closed session so that we the public can hear what is really happening?” asked former councilmember Bruce Grego at Monday’s meeting. “Because there is not enough information coming out from the city and it seems to me that you need some transparency here."

City Attorney Nira Doherty said the city had no choice but to hold the discussions in private. She cited the Ralph M. Brown Act, as well as California labor laws.

Possible Brown Act Violations?

From there, the meeting evolved into a debate over California’s open meeting laws and whether they were followed when the city contracted with Municipal Resource Group.

The Tribune explains:

Former mayor and councilmember Hal Cole and South Lake Tahoe Realtor David Kurtzman spoke during public comment, raising concerns over potential violations of the Brown Act committed by City Council.

"In my opinion, the council has deviated from protocol and might possibly have violated the Brown Act starting with [the] hiring of [Municipal Resource Group Partner Mary Egan]… " said Cole. "I'm not sure if council ever interviewed or discussed the scope of work or even legally ratified her contract. This was a great crossroads. You started a process that has not only put our city employees in turmoil, but the whole community is concerned."

Cole said he had never seen an evaluation done "in such a haste or so disrespectfully."

City Attorney Doherty defended the city's decision to hire MRG in closed session, noting that it was a "confidential personnel decision."

"The City Council may provide direction to its appointed employees in open or closed session regarding the engagement and retention of outside services or consultants," said Doherty. "The City Council will be reviewing the contract with Municipal Resources Group in open session in order to authorize payment for the services of Mary Egan which were directed by the City Council."

Doherty said the contract could be on the Feb. 20 or March 6 council meeting agenda.

Nikki Moore, legal counsel at the California News Publishers Association, disagreed with Doherty's defense.

"The ratification of this action in open session, by agreeing that the council will pay Egan, is symbolic — the council is contractually obligated to pay Egan's fees," said Moore. "The decision that should have been done in open session was whether to engage her in the first place."