Trying to end a “culture of fear,” El Dorado County supervisors are moving forward with an initiative to improve employee morale and investigate potential past violations of workplace policies on things such as bullying, retaliation and nepotism.
More than 1,930 county employees participated anonymously in a survey by Van Dermyden Maddux Law Firm as part of an initiative that aims to assess workplace morale and find ways to improve it.
Supervisors authorized the $140,000 initiative about six weeks ago. The law firm shared its preliminary survey findings at a special board of supervisors session on Monday.
Sixty percent of county employees who responded said they are generally satisfied with their workplace, with 88 percent reporting that their supervisors communicate respectfully and professionally with them. But other frequent comments cited problems with retaliation, harassment, bullying, nepotism and lack of civility, as well as misconduct by elected officials and their appointed department heads.
Chief Administrative Officer Terri Daly asked the board of supervisors to strongly commit to investigating those issues. She promised it will be a challenging process from the board down to employees.
“I need to know from the board that you are ready to tackle this culture of fear,” Daly said, echoing a phrase used several times at Monday’s special meeting. “I think it’s unconscionable we have so many people who said ‘I am afraid to come to work because of the retaliation.’ I want to deal with that. But we’re going to be calling out names of people in the future.”
In coming weeks, the law firm will further analyze survey data to look for countywide themes as well as problems specific to departments or even individual elected officials or department heads.
“I don’t know who those people are, but some of them might be appointed. Some might be elected, and that’s a very difficult thing to do because we have to deal with the elected in public,” Daly said.
Supervisors wrangled over the road forward for almost two hours before unanimously passing a motion, debating the extent to which the county should try to investigate and punish past transgressions or focus on improving things in the future.
That conversation turned personal at one point as Mike Applegarth, an analyst for the county, and Supervisor Ray Nutting, openly voiced their concerns about the past behavior of Auditor-Controller Joe Harn, who was not at the meeting to respond.
Rank and file county employees and appointed department heads can be disciplined in closed session. Nutting, who is on trial for alleged misuse of public funds, said he’s not sure how that process will play out for elected officials.
Nutting said that if he and the four other supervisors are held accountable as part of the process to “bring it on.”
“That’s fair game. And it should be fair game for the sheriff, the assessor, the tax collector, for all of them,” Nutting said about the county’s elected officials.
Pamela Knorr, the county’s 11th human resources director in as many years, said there are already sufficient county policies on the books for retaliation, bullying, nepotism and other workplace grievances. The challenge is following them.
“It’s taking those violations and equitably and fairly applying them across the board,” Knorr said. “And people have to have the courage, professionalism and backing to make sure they are applied and adhered to.”
That hasn’t been happening and county employees are asking for change, Supervisor Norma Santiago said.
“Quite frankly, this has been a long time in the making and we just haven’t had the players in place to move it where we need to move it. I strongly believe we do, and let’s just put on our political will and move forward,” Santiago said. “It’s time to change the culture.”