Editor’s note, May 14 at 11:30 a.m.: Truckee Donner Public Utility District’s board announced on May 13 the hiring of Brian Wright as the new general manager.
Every time Dave Bourque exited I-80 at Donner Pass Road, he’d feel a sense of panic. Each rotation of his car’s wheels brought him closer to a job he’d had for 23 years: lineman at the Truckee Donner Public Utility District. Overall, it was a job and a trade he was dedicated to, but things had changed.
“I love what I did,” Bourque recalled, sitting outside a Starbucks in Sparks, almost three years after his retirement. “I got gratification of bringing the lights back on. I went above and beyond the call of duty for any call-outs that I went on to try and restore people’s power.”
The work was excellent; the atmosphere he worked in … not so much. Disorganization and lack of leadership led to his dread of going to work each day, sometimes even leaving him short of breath. Bourque said supervisors were afraid to make decisions without calling full meetings, and proper safety protocols were not being put in place.
“I made a lot of major changes and upgrades in the electrical system, safety-wise, keeping logs of the overtime and the call-out list and safety clothes and the hot-sticking and things of that nature,” Bourque said. “I made a lot of changes, huge improvements, which needed to be there before I went there.”
Changes, he continued, that were pushed back against by management.
Bourque isn’t alone in pointing to trouble at the PUD. A roster of former employees — another lineman, a conservation specialist, a billing clerk, a district clerk, and others — also spoke to Moonshine Ink. Each one had been a long-time staff member (an average of 14.5 years) who retired or left between 2015 and the end of 2020. They all shared a love for their jobs, but also in-depth stories of a toxic workplace.
These past employees allege a turn for the worse has taken place at the public utility district over recent years, culminating in the last 12 months amid a constant change of leadership. The issues they cite seem to originate from the top and involve a cost to ratepayers to the tune of $1 million.
Indeed, the district has been in a state of flux lately. Former general manager Michael Holley announced his retirement in 2019, and after a far-reaching and year-long process, Rem Scherzinger was hired in July 2020 before being terminated from his position just four months later.
In addition, turnover among staff members increased, several involving high positions with quick tenures — reported to Moonshine Ink as due to a difficult work environment. One of the departed employees, Kim Harris, had served as human resources and risk director for six years. She left the district under a severance agreement and a general release in 2018. In 2020, Harris successfully ran for the TDPUD board against three incumbents, yet received the largest share of votes out of all candidates — narrowly surpassing Jeff Bender, who’s served on the board since 2008, by 43 votes.
Contrary to the claims of this group of employees, upper management and board members say the district is functioning particularly well, with several considerable successes within the last year, and that fine-tuning such achievement can unfortunately come with clustered transition of employees.
“I have seen a tremendous focus by the entire staff here at the TDPUD on improvements in the reliability and resiliency of water and power service delivery,” shared Brian Wright, interim general manager. “This has been accomplished through investment in infrastructure improvements, application of industry technologies, employee development and education, safe work habits, and continued efforts to build connections and engage with the TDPUD ratepayers and community. Certainly, our focus moving forward will be to continue to build upon the successes of the past as we launch our new strategic plan later this month.”
In addition to this new strategic plan, the district plans to announce a new general manager for the second time in one year. As of press deadline, the board is finalizing the selection of a candidate and negotiating an agreement. The anticipated employment date of the new GM is July 2, though there’s no specific announcement date for the name.
There is consensus that Harris has shaken things up. The new face on the board found friction between herself and other board members almost immediately as she questioned the quick decision to appoint Wright as interim general manager at her first board meeting on Dec. 16. At a special meeting called two days later, fellow board members claimed Harris’s remarks were in violation of her severance agreement. Things have further escalated to the point that the board voted to pursue litigation against Harris on April 19. The decision was made during closed session without Harris, and the district states its next step is to identify and engage in counsel to represent TDPUD. There is also a threat of a lawsuit from Harris in return.
Lengthy interviews were conducted with the former and current PUD employees who allege difficulties at the district. But due to the ongoing lawsuit and other privacy concerns, Wright, board president Christa Finn, and Pam Hobday, president of Pamela Hurt Associates and consultant to the district, responded to Moonshine’s questions via email. Some inquiries were deflected. Wright wrote, “The questions that we have not provided answers to are either associated with potential litigation, are confidential personnel matters, or would be inappropriate for the district to answer.”
Moonshine Ink reached out to Harris as well, but she declined to comment due to the pending litigation.
You’re in or you’re out
“No one person at PUD knows the whole scope of this situation,” said Becky Mazzer, former billing clerk with the district for 26 years. “They know parts of it, maybe parts that have happened directly to them, but all the pieces may or may not fit together as a larger story.”
While each employee had their own tale, there was a recurring theme: the PUD’s management team has produced a toxic work environment.
Ken Eyler, district lineman for over 15 years, said the wrong people were given management power and there’s an us-versus-them separation between the rank and file and higher-up employees.
Lana Sue Bell, who went from conservation customer service rep to conservation specialist to community outreach coordinator and administrator in her eight-and-a-half years, said her last position was discontinued in a successful attempt at retaliation against her.
A current PUD employee, Taylor (not the real name as anonymity was requested for fear of backlash), said the district is rife with favoritism and top heavy with management, which has led to numerous departures of qualified employees.
Two other former employees, both also asking to remain unnamed, cited micromanagement, difficulty in communication, and lack of support from their supervisors.
Barbara Cahill, district clerk for 13 years, said she witnessed a lack of connection between former general manager Michael Holley and other management.
Mazzer, who’s spent an estimated 40 hours following the PUD’s goings-on in the year-and-a-half since her retirement, shared that while she personally did not experience retaliation or have issues with the management, others’ departures from the district caused her to take notice. And as people who have worked together for decades are wont to do, she and other employees have stayed in touch. With the stories of an ill working environment piling up, she felt compelled to take action.
“I hear from other people who think they have been targeted, harassed, or treated unfairly or unprofessionally,” she said. “I spent the bulk of my working career there. I believe in what the PUD does. I think it’s very exciting that it’s a public power company and not a private, for-profit company. I love the idea that we, the public, pay for this utility and we supposedly have a say in how it’s run. It’s not personal, it’s just, let’s have this place hum like it used to, like it could.”
Those who spoke with the Ink pointed to a shift in atmosphere beginning around 2015. At that time, then-GM Holley, whom Moonshine was unable to contact for this article, had about seven years under his belt.
“You could see the pressure on the admin staff, changes started to happen, people leaving, it seemed almost like favoritism in certain ways was going on,” Taylor said.
One of the former anonymous employees said Holley seemed to be checking out mentally, possibly looking ahead to his retirement, even years out. Other interviewees also pointed out an absent-seeming, distanced Holley, someone who kept others at arm’s length.
Among every person interviewed, two names kept popping up as the driving forces behind the issues at the district. One was Shanna Kuhlemier, who was hired in 2015 as district clerk, though the position has since expanded to include assistant to the general manager, plus additional duties and oversight of employees who manage records, contracts, district property, and grants.
But her presence reportedly wreaks havoc on other staff. Eyler said Kuhlemier is revengeful and one you better not cross. “You can be the best worker in the world, and you can know your job the best in the world and be on time and polite and professional and kind and the whole bit, but if she had it out for you, might as well start packing your stuff up.”
Bell, the former community outreach coordinator and administrator, believes Kuhlemier sought for a staff reorganization to exclude her, not liking that Bell stood up to her.
“In August of 2019, just about a year-and-a-half until my 10-year retirement, Brandon Perry, HR manager, called me to his office and told [me] that my position was being eliminated,” Bell explained. She said she was told she could stay on, but was offered the opportunity to apply for an entry-level customer service position with an $8,000 salary decrease.
“At the same time, my previous position of two-and-a-half years as conservation specialist was available,” Bell said. “I asked the HR manager to move me back into my old position, but I was told the qualifications had changed and I no longer qualified for the position. They awarded the position to a customer service representative with zero experience and below me in seniority and gave her my salary.”
The irony, she added, was that this occurred the same week the PUD released its new company core values, including integrity, honesty, and ethics.
Bell says she initially went to her union representative, who at first promised to fight the decision, but later said the contract between the union and PUD stated the district had final decision over an employee’s fate.
“My job duties were distributed amongst the other customer service representatives and eventually a new position was created, reporting to [Kuhlemier], which included the majority of my job duties,” Bell said. “The elimination of my position was completely orchestrated by [Kuhlemier] with management’s buy-in to accommodate her new re-org. They did not eliminate my position, they eliminated me.”
Taylor added that most of current staff remains leery of Kuhlemier’s presence, especially in recent culture meetings meant to provide open dialogue on any district topic of interest. Others brought up what was interpreted as Holley’s transfer of power to Kuhlemier.
The Ink submitted questions to Kuhlemier, but she chose to have statements come through the interim general manager, and ultimately, no response was provided to questions regarding Kuhlemier’s alleged role in the PUD’s culture.
Meanwhile, the salary for Kuhlemier’s position jumped significantly about two years ago. The wage scales from 2019 to 2020 show a 51% increase for the district clerk, when the position leapt up a few levels to join the water operations and finance/accounting managers for a yearly salary range of $121,000 to $148,000. The year prior, the clerk position was slated for $80,000 to $97,000.
Of this increase, Finn, having been a director since December 2018 and current president, said the board spent months in discussion over the wage scale and learned during that time the scale “was suffering from a degree of compaction and was out of date, and that some positions had evolved into positions of more authority and responsibility, including the district clerk’s.”
Remaining positions received a 7.5% increase at that time except for the water utility director (Wright’s position) and information technology director roles, which earned a 21% increase.
In addition to approving the wage increase for Kuhlemier’s and other positions, the board commissioned a salary and wage review to ensure that staff payment is 75% of industry norms. The results of that review, Finn said, are expected this fall.
The other name frequently mentioned by the former and current employees is not on staff, but a consultant, first hired by the PUD in April 2018. As a trend for retirements was being seen at the district, especially among critical executive staff, Pam Hobday, of Pamela Hurt Associates was brought on to help the TDPUD navigate the transition period.
Over the course of the three-and-a-half years since, Hobday has provided training in organizational development, executive coaching, and succession and strategic planning, billing the district a total of $447,000 for these services. While a significant sum, it’s below what Hobday usually charges high-profile clients such as Nike, Ichiko/Nissan, and City of New York.
“My family and I have worked very diligently over the past 20 years to be involved and make a difference in this community,” she wrote. “I like to make it easier for local businesses to use my services and I have and will continue to charge lower fees for businesses in this community while providing the highest standard of service.”
When working with local nonprofits, Hobday added, she’s “been known to donate [her] services with no fee charge at all.”
Finn described Hobday’s work as exemplary. “If staff feels the district needs leadership development or help with creating a strategic plan or any other specialized services, they seek out the consultant they feel is the best for the job,” she continued. “We very often approve staff recommendation. In this case, the board has been very impressed with her work and we enjoy working with her.”
Still, people balk at the amount of money being spent on her consultancy work. Prior to the November 2020 election, Harris submitted a comment to the board on Sept. 2 at a meeting where Hobday’s most recent contract was approved, urging the board to take care to not spend so much money, especially on sources outside the district.
“The [TDPUD] has several MBAs on staff,” Harris wrote in part, “use the expertise we already have on staff.”
Several interviewees wondered how and why Hobday was selected. In the agenda item brought before the board last September, Hobday was determined to be the “expert in the field” for the work. And for training services such as provided by Hobday, requesting proposals or bids from interested businesses is not the mechanism used, as stated in the PUD’s district code.
Rather, the general manager — Holley, at the time of the initial contract — determined the need for an agreement of special services, chose not to seek proposals from other potential candidates, and entered into a formal agreement, ultimately approved by the board.
When asked how often this process happened at the PUD, the district did not provide a specific number of consultants, though Wright did say that many have provided a range of services over the years.
The most recent contract with Pamela Hurt Associates, approved by the board of directors in September, was for $106,400 to create a strategic plan, which will be presented before the board on May 19. At this point in time, Hobday said she does not anticipate additional services to the PUD after the strategic planning process is completed.
Mazzer, meanwhile, pointed to the lack of a general manager as a reason to question such a massive contract.
“I don’t want to use the word failure, but maybe that is the right word,” Mazzer said. “We don’t have a general manager right now. We’re still looking, we’re still paying [executive search firm] Peckham & McKenney to run another search [for a GM].”
Absent a permanent general manager and several outgoing executive staff doesn’t just mean the district is seeking to fill the shoes — it’s paying quite a bit to do so.
Scherzinger’s minimum severance payment was $275,000, paid in a lump sum upon his termination; plus $43,000 for vacation and leave, and six months of health insurance payments of over $3,000 each.
As interim general manager, Wright receives a base salary of $250,000 per year.
To date, Peckham & McKenney has been paid $32,000 for the recruitment of a new GM.
Three other release agreements — for HR/risk director (Harris), HR/risk manager (Brandon Perry), and finance/accounting manager and treasurer (Regina Wise) — since 2018 have resulted in at least $88,000 in payouts (Wise’s severance amount wasn’t confirmed by press deadline, and is not included in this total). Wright informed Moonshine that release agreements with employees are evaluated on an individual basis.
Adding up Hobday’s billing, Scherzinger’s severance, Wright’s interim salary, and at least two release agreements shows a cost to shifting management of about $1 million in the past three years.
On top of it all, Mazzer says, “Our water rates went up.” At the end of 2020, the PUD board voted unanimously to approve a rate increase for its payers, by which costs will gradually go up from 2021 to 2025, based on meter size and consumption, and a year-over-year increase of $1.4 million in water utility revenue.
The increase in rates came after an updated infrastructure capital improvement plan, a series of public workshops, and a water rates and cost of service study. Wright explained that the state of California requires specific provisions and processes, “with two of the key components being that public water rates be consistent with the cost of service and that the process be conducted in an open and transparent manner.”
He continued: “The district has made great efforts to ensure the financial impacts of necessary water rate increases are minimized through the combination of incremental rate increases and debt issuance. The most recent 10-year CIP and water rate/cost of service study identified the need to adjust rates in order to successfully fund the necessary infrastructure improvements and operational costs moving forward.”
Signed, concerned employees
Despite claims from multiple people of unfair management practices, no formal grievances have been filed by district union employees against the TDPUD in the past decade.
Currently, there are 65 people on staff at the utility district, making up six departments: general manager (6 employees), administrative services (16), electric (24), water (14), conservation (2), and IT/GIS (3). Nineteen employees are salaried and non-union; 47 are unsalaried and represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245. The union declined an interview.
Board president Finn shared PUD accomplishments that’ve been celebrated in the past eight or so months, including navigating Covid-19 with zero employee hours lost; engaging in public outreach to assist in the general manager hiring and creation of a strategic plan; and receiving the Platinum Level Reliability Award from the American Public Power Association and the Award of Excellence in Transparency from the Special District Leadership Foundation.
Finn said that most, if not all, of these successes were the result of staff-generated ideas.
The board, she continued, has undergone a sea change, a significant transformation, during this time: “We are much more engaged, active in seeking information and feedback, outward- and forward-looking, and interactive with the public and each other (only in session, of course) than we have been. We are not the same board that we were two years ago! We have been working hard; we have stretched and grown.”
The community seems to be happy with the district’s performance. In a survey conducted over 10 days in December 2020, a substantial 72% of its 400 respondents said they approve of the job the PUD is doing.
Yet there has been a recent and marked increase in employee turnover. The last three-and-a-half years show 52% of the workforce leaving, a rate equivalent to the eight years prior. (Retirement numbers, which are included in that percentage, reflect an industry-wide issue — the “Silver Tsunami” or “Brain Drain” — which is an exodus of Baby Boomers who are now hitting retirement age, taking with them a massive amount of expertise.)
Above is a table of PUD departures to-date since 2010, broken out into four different reasons given why staff members left. This information was provided by the district.
Looking at just voluntary and involuntary terminations, the district saw a 23% turnover since 2018, compared to 14% in the previous eight years. Regarding the number of departures, Wright pointed to a variety of reasons.
“Since 2018, 17 staff members have retired and 13 have left employment for other voluntary reasons, including pursuit of other career opportunities, decisions to move out of the area, or simply family logistics,” he explained. “It is not unusual, particularly with utility agencies, for there to be retirements that occur in clusters or in close timing with each other, and sometimes these retirements or transitions are [a] catalyst for long-term career decisions as other employees evaluate career opportunities both internally and externally. While there can be periods with more staffing vacancies than others, there are usually various contributing factors.”
Wright also mentioned contributing factors outside the work environment, specifically results from a local 2019/20 employee survey performed by the Truckee Tahoe Workforce Housing Agency. Per the results, 20% of TDPUD employees planned to retire in the next five years; 12% considered leaving due to housing issues; and 50% lived outside the Tahoe/Truckee region.
Nevertheless, regardless of outside circumstances, staff has been reaching out to the board, with pleas to consider their plight.
There was a Nov. 20 letter with 29 signatures — nearly 40% of the current workforce — asking that Scherzinger not be terminated as GM and describing him as “a positive light in the recent dark years.” Multiple sources pointed out that the letter was signed by people at the district that day, and had there been more notice, more people would’ve added their names.
An additional letter was submitted a month later, describing a “fear-based culture” at the PUD.
And yet another, submitted to the board in January, read in part, “Many employees support the current leadership and the direction the board and directors are heading. The claims about the ‘dark years’ and a ‘toxic’ workplace are made by very few employees. Not all union employees were in support of that [November] letter and that does not represent how all employees feel. Many employees trust the current leadership and have high hopes that the board will ask Brian Wright to remain as the general manager.”
The two latter letters were both simply signed “Concerned Employees,” with no indication of the number of staff represented.
As is common for many public districts with governing boards, the TDPUD directors purposely do not have a lot of crossover with staff. Finn described the board as the outward face of the district, listening, reflecting, and bringing to life the community’s input, while staff exists as the inward-looking face — providing operational support and expertise day to day.
“We do not oversee staff, nor do we represent them in any way other than being an elected [official],” Finn wrote. “Our link to them is the GM. We have zero overlap with [human resources]. We have zero overlap with electrical or water engineering. We have zero overlap with linemen, customer service reps, water techs, etc. (Other than socially, of course).”
Staff will often present information during open session board meetings, but outside of those, board members communicate through the general manager. This is standard procedure at other special districts.
Yet many employees believe it’s more than just purposeful separation.
“I think the way the PUD board works is they just do what is presented to them,” said Taylor, the anonymous employee. “The management team goes and presents what they want to do and the board’s like, ‘Oh, okay, cool.’”
When asked why she believes people are reaching out to Moonshine Ink to share their experiences, Finn recognized the difficulty in pinning it down.
“Why do people do what they do?” she queried. “Feelings, thoughts, habits, impulse … Love? Empathy? An honest attempt to increase understanding? Fear of change? Uncertainty? Jealousy? Attention? Revenge? The human pantheon of motivation is infinite. I do not know what is in other people’s hearts, but I imagine it is some combination of the above.”
For those who’ve spoken out, it appears indeed to be a combination.
“A lot of those people still in the building are my friends,” Mazzer said. “Even the people who have retired, as well as the people who have left in disgust, they don’t want to see this continue because it’s wrong. That’s why we’re still involved in it.”
“I still have friends that work there, and I’d like to see it be a good place to work,” Eyler echoed. “A certain amount of people continue to get away with it and every time they get away with it, it enables them even more … It’s a principle thing.”