On Friday, Ellie Oppenheim, a member of Mayor Jerry Sanders' new senior management team, is expected to make an appearance in Reno, Nev. But it's not official city business that's drawing this highly regarded bureaucrat northward to "the biggest little city in the world."
She's looking for a new job.
That news-coupled with the fact that Oppenheim started her current gig as the mayor's deputy chief of neighborhood services just last month-is raising eyebrows and questions and has a local ethicist shaking his head.
One of two remaining candidates in the search for a new CEO of the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority (RSCVA), Oppenheim came within one vote last week of landing that job, which could pay as much as $250,000. Congratulations may soon be in order, but it's her relationship with her current employer that's at issue.
Did Oppenheim-who City Council President Scott Peters lauded at a Friday luncheon as "the best person from within the organization" that Sanders has hired-dupe the mayor, the city and citizens by accepting a job while pursuing something better?
"This position... sort of uniquely brings together a lot of my previous experience. It's potentially challenging and exciting and for that reason I feel like it is important to explore it a little further before coming to conclusions," she told CityBeat. But her actions seem to speak for themselves.
A deputy city manager prior to taking the job overseeing the city's library system, its parks and recreation department and managing its newly established customer-services division for Sanders, Oppenheim said she applied for the job in Reno "last fall, prior to the elections... at a time when clearly my job, and that of all of the unclassified staff here, weren't secure."
At the time, a pending change to an executive-mayor form of government meant that the city manager's office would be subsumed by the mayor's office. Details of how that transition would unfold and what would happen to current staffers were initial unknowns. Sanders, then a candidate, also announced that, if elected, he would ask 300 high-level city officials to resign. He would then decide which ones to accept.
"I think it's import to recognize that all unclassified staff are at-will employees, which means that we serve at-the-pleasure-of," Oppenheim said. "The mayor's process just made that very explicit."
According to the mayor's office, Oppenheim was offered her current job the week before Christmas. On Jan. 10, the decision to hire her was announced in a press statement, which also noted that her salary had been reduced by $11,900 to $168,000
Asked via e-mail whether Oppenheim had disclosed that she would continue to apply for the job in Reno at the time she accepted the position, the mayor's spokesman, Fred Sainz, responded, "No."
On Jan. 19, Oppenheim, along with 217 other unclassified employees (Sanders overestimated the total number), tendered her letter of resignation, as requested by the mayor. Sainz said that to date, none of those letters have been accepted.
On Jan. 27, the RSCVA, under pressure from a Reno newspaper, released the names of the five finalists for the CEO position. Sainz said Oppenheim informed the mayor the following morning that she was in the running for that job. It was the same day her name appeared in Reno newspapers.
On Tuesday, Jan. 31, Oppenheim was in Reno for a job interview, and by Feb. 9 RSCVB officials announced they had narrowed the field to two candidates. That same day, an attempt to enter into exclusive negotiations with Oppenheim failed.
The RSCVB planned to send a delegation to San Diego to interview community leaders about Oppenheim, but a spokeswoman said Tuesday that trip had been scrapped in favor of having her return to Reno this week.
The official word from the mayor's office is that "everyone has the right to do what makes them happy," and that Oppenheim's current employment status isn't in jeopardy. "Ellie must have had her reasons for not bringing this to the mayor or Ronne [Froman's] attention," Sainz said in an e-mail. "We wish her well if she is offered this job. If she remains with the city, she will be an integral part of the mayor's senior management team."
It's an interesting stance considering that instilling a new culture of ethics at City Hall is one of Sanders' top priorities.
Mark Lampe, a professor of business law and social responsibility at the University of San Diego, said he has sympathy for both the mayor and Oppenheim, given the upheaval at City Hall, but said Oppenheim should have chosen to fully disclose her intentions at the time she was hired.
"I believe it raises an ethical issue," Lampe said. "I do believe that the reasonable expectation of an employer and an employee is that, unless something sensational happens, they are going to be in this job for a reasonable amount of time and get a reasonable amount of time to prove themselves.
"Integrity is about doing the more difficult things."
Lampe points out that if Oppenheim goes to Reno, other candidates who were previously suited for the job-the mayor's second and third choices-may no longer be available. Moreover, he said looking for her replacement will likely cost the mayor time and increasingly scarce taxpayer funds.
The City Hall Shuffle
* Anna Molina Rodriguez, former City Councilmember Ralph Inzunza's chief of staff, is staying on to guide the District 8 office for newly elected City Councilmember Ben Hueso, a move that only fuels confusion for those having difficulty divining a difference between Inzunza and his replacement.
* District 2 City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer has finished recruiting his staff and it's the addition of Erica Mendelson-formerly the go-to-girl for Carl DeMaio of the Performance Institute. The think-tank is enthusiastic about the mayor's plan to privatize city jobs, and that has observers wondering if DeMaio has managed to secure himself an office on the 10th floor. Contacted by CityBeat, Mendelson said she's looking forward to applying the skills she learned at the Performance Institute to City Hall.
* Also notable, two longtime staffers with progressive roots have landed jobs behind partisan lines. Don Mullen, a senior policy aide and campaign manager for former District 2 City Councilmember Michael Zucchet, a Democrat, has taken a job advising Republican City Councilmember Jim Madaffer. Jamie Fox-Rice, Inzunza's former press secretary and a staffer in Donna Frye's mayoral campaign, is now handling media relations for Faulconer, also a Republican.
* Finally, it seems Jeff Gattas, District 3 City Councilmember Toni Atkins' policy director, liked the feel of the mayor's office so much during Atkins' temporary term there that he decided to stay. Gattas took a job with Sanders and now serves as the mayor's liaison to the City Council.