First published in the Oct. 14 print issue of the San Marino Tribune.
City Manager Marcella Marlowe was sharply criticized by the San Marino Police Officers’ Association following the municipality’s proposal of a mandatory employee vaccination policy, co-workers and fellow city leaders rallied to support the administrator and decry what one called “a cheap tactic.”
The City Council directed the municipal staff in September to pursue an employee vaccination mandate, which is currently under negotiation with the SMPOA. In the meantime, the union last week took out a full-page, paid advertisement in the Tribune to chastise what it depicted as shortcomings in Marlowe’s performance and leadership style. The ad was titled “San Marino Police Officers’ Association Declares a Vote of No Confidence on the City Manager.”
All five members of the City Council told the Tribune that they are vaccinated and have expressed support for the mandatory employee vaccination directive.
“I continue to be disappointed in the SMPOA’s tactics in this labor negotiation,” Mayor Ken Ude said on Tuesday. “The union’s vote of no confidence is without basis and is a cheap negotiating tactic. I wish they would show the same energy in looking for a win-win solution, like we all try to do in San Marino. Sworn officers are in the public safety business and they should take the appropriate actions to demonstrate that.”
The city and SMPOA are involved in what have been portrayed as contentious negotiations over a proposal that could result in the termination of up to 11 of the municipality’s 24 police officers. The city’s version of the mandate would not allow employees to use frequent testing for COVID-19 as an alternative.
Union President Naved Qureshi said his union’s vote of no confidence “is a symbolic gesture that a group, the police association, has lost surety or confidence in the city manager’s leadership.”
He added: “Basically, based upon multiple incidents, the POA is saying our city manager is not managing the city [by] the standards we believe she should be managing the city.”
Ude, however, took umbrage at this sentiment, noting several ways in which he feels the city has improved in recent years.
“The city and the city manager are doing a great job, especially in light of the challenges of this pandemic,” he said. “Crime is down. The San Marino Fire Department’s response time is outstanding. We’re fixing our aged infrastructure by repaving streets, fixing sidewalks and remodeling the 70-year-old San Marino Center. We operate on a responsible budget and remain fiscally strong with over $35 million in the bank, which is $4 million more than last year at this time.”
The union’s advertisement — run as a statement — accused Marlowe of poor leadership and said it has resulted in a high turnover rate among city employees, including the departure of the former community development director and assistant to the city manager.
However, in an unsolicited email sent to the Tribune last Friday, Amanda Fowler — the former assistant to the city manager — said she had to “close this loop on my end before I left.”
“As with any career change, multiple factors and circumstances led to this being the right time for me to move on from San Marino, none of which I am reluctant to speak about,” wrote Fowler. “In fact, the person I have had the most honest and candid conversations with about this decision is Dr. Marlowe herself.”
Fowler went on to say that she struggled with “some of the complex and nuanced decisions made by the city during this constantly evolving pandemic — I hope anyone would.” But she said she “always felt heard” by Marlowe, and “we continued working towards the shared goal of serving the residents of San Marino and keeping each other safe.
“And to be abundantly clear, I am thrilled with San Marino’s decision to require staff to be vaccinated, and I would not be leaving for an organization that didn’t have a similar commitment,” Fowler said.
Aldo Cervantes, the former community development director referenced in the ad, also disputed the union’s claim that he left because he was “displeased with the city manager’s leadership.”
“She is not the reason I left,” said Cervantes, who worked in San Marino’s planning and building department for 18 years before leaving to work for San Gabriel. “I received a lot of support from Marcella. She was supportive in terms of introducing me to new types of projects that included economic development. I took the opportunity and rode with it. If it wasn’t for her, I don’t think that opportunity would even be there for me.”
Although the union’s statement claimed the city has seen “an almost 100 percent turnover rate in employees” in the past four years, Marlowe provided data showing that San Marino’s police employees have come and gone at a relatively steady rate — about six per year — and there has not been a marked increase since she was hired as city manager on Oct. 17, 2017. In the three consecutive years she has been employed, the SMPD has lost six, five and seven employees for an average of six per year.
Among its other complaints, the SMPOA also assailed Marlowe for bringing her “sick son to receive a rapid COVID test from the San Marino Fire Department” after saying such resources would cost too much to provide weekly testing for police officers, according to the ad.
Marlowe acknowledged that her son — who is not old enough to receive a vaccine — received the COVID test at the department but stated that the procedure was not out of the ordinary. An SMFD employee who spoke with the Tribune but requested anonymity agreed.
“Yes, we have tested many different people, whether they be relatives of city employees or city employees,” said the SMFD worker, adding that such tests were done so that employees could continue to do their jobs without having to be quarantined. When asked how many times the process took place, the employee said about 40, but did not have documentation for the number.
The employee also said that approximately half of the tests involved kits that were provided free of charge by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. The employee also said that at one time or another, an individual “from every different department” in the city was tested for COVID.
The union also contended that Marlowe has not supported community events. But she provided the Tribune with a list of about a dozen such events in which she participated this past year, including city celebrations of Memorial Day and July 4, the San Marino Motor Classic and several Rotary and City Club meetings, both virtual and in person.
The city and each of its three unions — the SMPOA, San Marino Firefighters’ Association and the San Marino City Employees’ Association — are still at the bargaining table with hopes of completing the process by December.
Previously, the union sent out postcards to San Marino residents explaining its stance: “Federal and state workers are granted weekly testing, but the city of San Marino refuses,” it stated.
Qureshi, a 20-year law enforcement veteran, emphasized that the union is concerned with losing valuable officers. At that time, 13 of the department’s 24 officers had received the vaccine, himself included.
“The officers are not anti-vaccine, but just want an alternative to keep these devoted officers employed,” he said.