Roughly four months after he was hired as general manager of the Truckee Donner Public Utility District, Rem Scherzinger has been removed from the position.
The decision, finalized at a Nov. 18 special board meeting, was publicized as a no-cause release of Scherzinger and made under the “determination that this was not a fit between the board of directors and the general manager,” said Brian Wright, interim GM.
District staff was not made aware of the decision until the immediate days prior, when it was listed on the Nov. 18 agenda as ‘Public Employee Discipline/Dismissal/Release,’ between ‘General Manager’s Performance Review’ and appointment of an interim general manager. In reaction, 30 employees signed a letter to show their support for keeping Scherzinger on board and formally submitted the document for last Wednesday’s special board meeting.
“This abrupt dismissal will most certainly break the trust between the employees and the board,” the letter stated in part. “Not knowing the circumstances of his dismissal, we kindly request that you reconsider this decision and weigh the negative impact it will have on the majority of the employees of the district.”
In a six-month spread of notable departures in Truckee (including town manager and police chief), Scherzinger’s July appointment as head of the TDPUD was made after a long journey. When the previous GM, Michael Holley, announced his eventual retirement in July 2019, a year in advance, the board of directors and staff hired consultant Pamela Hurt Associates to not only find a new district leader, but to establish a process by which all future employees could be hired.
“I know people are like, wow, that was quick, that was a big process that took us a long time to make the hire and a short time for the release,” Board Vice President Christa Finn told Moonshine Ink. “… These decisions are never made lightly in either direction, to hire or to release.
“The relationship that the board has with each other and the trust in the process that we went through gave us that trust in each other and the ability to speak honestly and to follow our values and admit that this wasn’t a good fit. That was a hard thing for us to admit and to remedy going forward. It did happen quickly,” Finn said. “I, for one, think that’s a good thing. I think it’s better to — when you realize it’s not a good fit — to not let it continue and become worse and worse.”
Finn explained that the board met multiple times in advance of decision day, in closed session.
Scherzinger was not under an evaluation period, Wright said, but often the employment agreement allows for what is essentially a trial period. For general managers and other executive positions, contracts are negotiated and developed between two parties to define the terms; in this case, between the board and Scherzinger.
“It’s very common for there to be a provision within a contract, employment contract, that either party can separate if at some point they’re in the employment and it doesn’t feel fit or it’s not a sustainable relationship; there’s a lot of different variables there,” Wright said. “The protective measure there for both parties is to separate without cause. Sometimes it’s just simply that. It wasn’t an employment relationship that could continue, it might be items or issues on either party’s side or both parties’ sides.”
Terminations with cause, in contrast to what happened with Scherzinger, can take place for a broad number of reasons, including illegal activity.
“‘For cause’ means that there is a specific item that an employer had identified as the cause for the separation, and then there’s ‘no cause’ where it’s a general separation or, as the board has indicated coming out of closed session, the action item was ‘not a fit,’” Wright said. “That’s the no-cause category there.”
Both Wright and Finn declined to discuss the specific terms of the separation contract, but said that the detachment is complete and final. They did not share what financial components, such as a severance, are included.
A current staff member at the district, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said the TDPUD had become a toxic place during previous years, particularly with Holley and the continued relationship with Pamela Hobday, president of Pamela Hurt Associates.
The staff member says Hobday had a negative influence on the district, that she helped create an executive leadership team that further separated the rank and file employees from management, and received a healthy paycheck thanks to an ongoing contract. When asked if this view was reflected among other staff members, they said, “Yes, they believe the same thing.”
With the departure of Holley, some staff saw Scherzinger as a breath of fresh air, the source said.
“He was out there and he was listening and on several occasions he said, ‘My door is always open,’” the staff member said. “And honestly, the door to his office was open.”
“There was nothing he had done at work or anywhere else that I’d heard that would be a red flag … up until Monday [Nov. 16],” the staff member explained. “… I heard Monday morning that [Scherzinger] had gone over the annuals for 2021 … and that he had recommended that [Hobday] not be on the annuals going forward in 2021 past her April [or May] departure date.”
Finn, however, disputed the claim, citing that in September Scherzinger, along with the board, actually approved an extension of the Pamela Hurt Associates contract through spring 2021 for $127,312.50. As for continuing the contract, Finn said no discussions have been had among board members about extensions beyond the spring.
Hobday echoed Finn’s dispute, and told Moonshine she was unaware that “my contract and the work I was doing led to Mr. Scherzinger’s separation from the district.”
Responding to the allegations that she helped foster a negative working environment, Hobday said that leadership development and cultural change process work is always a challenge.
“My recommendation to the leadership team continues to be to engage all employees and to implement change based on their recommendations whenever possible,” Hobday wrote in an email.
The anonymous TDPUD employee said they believe Scherzinger was looking to sever ties with Hobday after this latest contract extension, however, and that’s what they see as the overriding reason for Scherzinger’s termination. While 30 employees signed the letter asking for a reconsideration of the release, the staff member says additional timing would’ve allowed for another 10 or so signees — over a majority of the 68 members on staff at the TDPUD.
“It’s been toxic,” they said. “People have not been happy coming to work, having to deal with this bumbling crew of managers. It’s demoralizing seeing what they did. People had faith. Nobody’s going to be happy with everything a GM does, but they were confident he was moving in the right direction.”
Scherzinger shared his own statement on the departure in an email to Moonshine: “For the past few months, I have enjoyed working with the Truckee community, board, and staff of the PUD to prepare the district for a truly visionary approach to utility management and resource conservation. It has been a pleasure to work with such a dedicated and highly professional group. My family and I wish everyone great success in all future ventures.”
Moving forward, Finn explained that the board will take some time to regroup before selecting a new general manager, with the holidays and COVID-19 both being obvious limiting factors. The original process developed to hire Scherzinger in the first place, however, still provides guideposts.
“The pillars are still in place, 90% of the work is still done,” Finn said. “The groundwork that we laid took a year to lay. We’re not planning on doing that again. I think it was effective. Gauging from my experience through this, all of those things are still valid and in place. We are not abandoning any of that … I do not expect this to be a year-and-a-half process like it was the first time because we’ve already done that work.”
Over 100 interested persons applied for the general manager position from which Scherzinger was selected. He was among three finalists, and Finn said she didn’t know whether the other two people might be reconsidered.
Wright’s time as interim general manager isn’t his first. As water utility director and assistant GM, he filled the interim position between Holley and Scherzinger, and for some periods near the end of Holley’s tenure. Wright will likely fill the role for at least one month as the board moves forward in finding Scherzinger’s replacement.
“The district’s goal, staff’s goal, the board’s goal is to identify and bring on a high-performing long term general manager that can carry through this process,” Wright said.