OAKLAND — Peralta Community College District leaders Tuesday suspended an employee accused of embarrassing Chancellor Elihu Harris, but stopped short of firing her as some administrators had urged.
In a 6-1 vote, district trustees suspended Jennifer Lenahan —an assistant to Vice Chancellor Tom Smith — for two weeks without pay and ordered her moved to a different job. After the vote, Lenahan said that she was not yet sure whether she would appeal the decision to an arbitrator.
"I'm surprised. I'm pleased," she said. "We have to digest what happened."
The decision followed a meeting at which Peralta administrators urged the board to fire Lenahan, saying she had breached the confidentiality of other employees by releasing personnel documents to a friend.
But trustees said they believed Lenahan could have avoided the transgression with better supervision and instead singled out her boss, Smith, who had spoken in Lenahan's defense.
One trustee also cautioned against making Lenahan appear to be a scapegoat for four articles published by the Bay Area News Group on July 12, a day before the district began investigating her. The articles raised questions about decisions and spending by Harris and other leaders.
"I think appearance is very important," said Trustee Nicky Gonzalez Yuen, who worried the action could prevent other employees from bringing concerns to district leaders. "I'm concerned about the chilling effect of firing Ms. Lenahan."
Administrators had also accused her of giving the Bay Area News Group information about the district's payments to Mark Lindquist, Harris' longtime business partner. Among the accusations was that she provided the news group, which includes this newspaper, a list of payments to Lindquist's company.
The Bay Area News Group received no such list from Lenahan or from any other source. Public-records experts have said Lenahan would have been within her rights as a public employee to release such a document, despite the district's contention it was "sensitive and confidential."
Lenahan's attorney, David Weintraub, said his client was being singled out because of Harris' embarrassment over the news articles. Harris, the former Oakland mayor and state legislator, disputed that idea, saying he was used to negative publicity.
"I've been embarrassed a lot and I've never retaliated against anybody," he told the board. "I think the issue before us is one of confidentiality."
In a one-page letter Smith signed on Sept. 22, the vice chancellor said he had no significant criticisms of Lenahan's work and said she had shown no disloyalty, despite accusations she had questioned the raises Harris gave to top Peralta administrators without trustees' approval.
"I responded that she was not alone, that many people had complained, including the unions," Smith wrote. "I have never known Ms. Lenahan to breach a duty of confidentiality or loyalty."
Trustees criticized Smith for a lack of control over his employee, saying he should have disciplined her much earlier. Among the trustees critical of the vice chancellor was Marcie Hodge, who herself was criticized by Smith earlier this year for using her taxpayer-funded credit card for personal expenses.
Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Reach him at 510-208-6488.