When Mayor Kevin Faulconer cut off funding for the Civic Innovation Lab, a nascent mini-department conceived to solve city problems, his office tried to soften the blow by saying nobody was losing their job.
“No one is getting fired,” Faulconer spokesman Craig Gustafson told me when the budget was unveiled.
They got fired.
The city started its new fiscal year this week, so the Civic Innovation Lab officially ran out of city money. Everyone from the lab is now a self-employed freelancer.
Faulconer and the so-called Civic Innovation Lab were a mismatch from the start.
The lab was a brainchild of disgraced Mayor Bob Filner. It hadn’t found its footing by the time Faulconer took over as mayor, and when he presented his first budget he decided to shift the money that would have gone to the lab to the city’s planning department. He wanted to focus on expediting out-of-date community plans, he said.
Updating community plans is a popular effort, and Faulconer promised while campaigning for mayor that he’d make it a priority. Then there’s the fact that it was hard to even describe what the Civic Innovation Lab was.
That made Faulconer’s move to ax it pretty predictable. The only question was what would happen to the lab’s four members: an urban designer, an architect, a data specialist and a landscape architect. The mayor’s office said they’d have an opportunity to get jobs elsewhere within the city, ideally as part of the drummed-up effort to update community plans.
Turns out, the “opportunity” the employees got was no different than what’s available to anyone with an Internet connection: They could apply for open positions within the planning department.
Planning Director Bill Fulton, who oversaw the lab, said all of the four lab workers were unclassified employees. All of the open positions in the department were for classified employees. That meant they couldn’t just be moved into them, but that they’d have to go through a full application process to get another gig.
“They had to vacate those positions,” Fulton said.
Ilisa Goldman, the lab’s landscape architect, said the only place she ever heard lab employees like her would have a chance for other jobs was in the press.
“We came in and said, ‘So is this true?’ and were told, ‘No, it isn’t true,’” she said. “We were told we could apply for open jobs like the rest of the population, and were given unemployment information. There was never any indication we could stay with the city.”