August 4, 2021
Pocatello City Council Member Claudia Ortega sat down with the Pocatello-Chubbuck Observer yesterday to answer questions about emails she sent to Pocatello’s Human Resources Department Head, Heather Buchanan, which included a list of “potential positions to eliminate for streamlining purposes.” In some cases the list provided names of employees instead of job titles.
At a July 26 Special Meeting of the City Council, Ortega’s correspondence was described as a “hit list” by fellow Council Member Linda Leeuwrik. (See article, here: Pocatello City Council Member Ortega Creates List of Potential Positions to Eliminate; Colleague Denounces, “Hit List” | Pocatello-Chubbuck Observer (pocatellochubbuckobserver.com))
Pocatello Mayor Brian Blad, in an article published by this news site on August 2, said that it was unusual to see, “a Councilmember naming names of specific employees they would consider laying off.” When asked about the impact on employee morale, Blad said, “What I’ve heard from employees is they are anxious about what the future holds.” (See article, here: Pocatello Mayor Brian Blad Responds to Questions Regarding Council Member Ortega’s “Streamlining” Email | Pocatello-Chubbuck Observer (pocatellochubbuckobserver.com) )
Our interview with Council Member Ortega follows.
Observer: What was your reason for developing the list of potential positions for streamlining purposes?
Ortega: “Brian [Mayor Blad] had told us in a meeting, and told the Journal, that layoffs were probable. I’m not really clear on what this budget process is this year, but if we’re going to talk about it, we have to have some basis for discussion. So I looked at the organizational charts for redundancies. I didn’t want to say, ‘Last one in, first one out,’ but we needed to be more strategic than that. So, I went through the org charts and found where there are a lot of people, and the library is a good example. Does it really need to be open 12 hours a day, six days a week? Given that this is the information age, if we reduce the hours of the library, we could conceivably eliminate some of these positions. The library budget is $1.8 million, and $1.2 million is wages and benefits. I did that with all the departments I had. So, I made the email list and sent it to Heather Buchanan. I wanted to know the dollar amount for each of those positions to see if it would make a difference.”
Observer: What was your thinking on the second email regarding the fire truck mechanic?
Ortega: “It dawned on me that fleet could work on those trucks. Could we eliminate that position? The reason I put a smiley face on it was that I’d already sent a lengthy email, and I was adding to it, not that I was happy to get rid of people.”
Observer: What are your thoughts on Council Member Leeuwrik referring to the email as a “hit list?”
Ortega: “It’s really unfortunate that another Council member referred to it as a hit list. That’s inflammatory. It obliterates what the intent of the email was. The real intent of the email was just to get information.”
Observer: It sounds like the list was generated by only looking at org charts. Did you have any discussions with anyone about the work that was performed by the positions, or was anything else considered?
Where’s this money going to come from in the next four years? People can say this town is exploding, but it’s not. The Northgate TIF district isn’t performing as we were told it was going to. We’re not going to see the money that was foretold. So, that plan it was based on, is not what is taking place. I’m sure, eventually, it will pencil out, but right now we’re not getting the money we were told that we’d have to work with.
When my husband took a large pay cut at the time of the crash, there was not a possibility of generating more money, so I had to reduce expenses. So, that’s how my mind works.”
Observer: The redacted section is people’s names. Why did you put in people’s names in some cases?
Ortega: “I happened to know who the position was held by. By the way, this was an email between me and H.R., not an email that was to be disseminated. The Mayor brought up layoffs, so I was trying to find a way to talk about that in an intelligent matter if it came to that conversation.”
Observer: Some City employees have said that you don’t like them or that eliminating their positions might be political. How do you respond?
Ortega: “I don’t know them. I don’t interact with them in that way. I don’t have a personal opinion on any one of these people. There are more redacted than not redacted because I don’t know who has those jobs.”
Observer: Let’s talk about the positions you listed in the police department. There is a lot of push these days in some cities for defunding the police. Was the inclusion of police department positions on the list in any way connected to this?
Ortega: “Absolutely not. My husband is law enforcement. I think that defunding the police is an absurd position. It’s a ludicrous concept. My brain doesn’t even go there. I’ve supported the police when it came to body cameras, they wanted body cameras. Every officer wanted a take-home vehicle, which would help response time, so I supported that. We have a social contract. That’s how the police works. People agree to abide by the directives given by police, and we have to have that. Otherwise we have anarchy. It appears to me that there might be a lot of administrative personnel, and I’d rather redirect that to people working on the street, to boots on the ground.”
Observer: Did you work with other Council members in developing this list?
Ortega: “No. It was just me. Things are not planned out between us. We are like-minded in fiscal ways, but we act on our own.”
Observer: Anything you’d like to add?
Ortega: “We’re far from a perfect world where we can fund anything we want. In addition, we need to have some equity between union and nonunion employees. Where is the money going to come from? The fact is that we are facing large deficits.
I know that having an honest discussion is difficult. I know that it’s easier to pretend that everything is just grand, but it’s not. The people who work for the city are good people doing good work, but if we can’t increase revenue, then we have to reduce expenses. I kind of feel that this is my version of tough love. Anyone who’s been a parent or a teacher, etc, has been in a position where all attempts to encourage or cajole change fail and all that’s left is the harsh reality of tough love. I have had to do that in my own family, with my own children, so I know it’s hard. Pocatello, as a city, needs to face reality and do what needs doing in order to survive and move forward and grow.”