One of 20 reports released by the El Dorado County Civil Grand Jury describes the large number of elected officials required by the county charter as “a prescription for dysfunction.”
Jury members stumbled upon “a thread of dysfunction running through El Dorado County government” as they investigated other issues for their 2013-14 report released this month. Among their findings:
• Seven elected county officials — the auditor/controller, recorder/clerk, treasurer/tax collector, surveyor, district attorney, assessor and sheriff — can refuse to cooperate with the five elected Board of Supervisors and their appointed Chief Administrative Officer, and may feel no allegiance to policies the board sets.
• Department heads have gone around the CAO directly to the Board of Supervisors in support of their individual positions to the detriment of the county as a whole.
• Individual members of the Board of Supervisors have interfered in the day-to-day administration of the county.
In its report, the grand jury notes there are no term limits for the county’s elected department heads while county supervisors can only be elected for eight years. The end results of conflict among elected officials are ongoing inefficiencies and failed programs and purchases, the report states.
The grand jury recommends a charter amendment to reduce the number of elected officials to only the three elected positions required by the California Constitution, sheriff, district attorney and assessor. It also recommends a more clearly defined role between the Board of Supervisors and the CAO in the charter to make clear that the supervisors are the governing board and responsible for all policy decisions the CAO is charged with carrying them out.
“We never started looking for anything along those lines, but as we were doing investigations for our 19 other reports we were picking up a lot of comments along those lines,” jury foreman Neil Cunningham said about the potential for dysfunctional county government. “Then the county came out with the (workplace climate assessment) survey and that sort of reinforced what we had been hearing.”
That survey found 17 percent of participating employees unhappy with their workplace, with some reporting problems with retaliation, harassment, bullying, nepotism and lack of civility, as well as misconduct, by elected officials and appointed supervisors. More than 60 percent of county employees participated in the anonymous survey.
County leaders are trying to improve the workplace with a new action plan and an independent special master to review alleged violations of the county’s respectful workplace policies.
The grand jury’s recommendation for charter amendments is timely. A county charter committee has been formed to review the charter as required every five years. The group meets today in Placerville. Any proposed changes to the charter would go to the Board of Supervisors, which could put them on the ballot for voters, possibly as soon as this November’s general election, county spokeswoman Stephanie McCorkle said.
The grand jury specifically identifies Auditor/Controller Joe Harn and allegations he has “deliberately obstructed board initiatives in order to cast himself as the white knight crusading against failures by others.” The grand jury said it received substantial testimony that Harn refuses to cooperate with the CAO to implement initiatives or engage in constructive problem solving.
Harn strongly disagrees with the grand jury recommendation to eliminate four elected department heads who serve as another check and balance in local county government. Harn said the county is in good financial shape in part of because of himself and other elected officials opposing things the county can’t afford to do.
“I don’t work for the Board of Supervisors or the CAO, I work for the public. So there are times when I stand up and say we can’t afford to do this or that,” Harn said. “If you read the report, it’s very clear that the CAO provided testimony to the grand jury. I am the public’s financial watchdog and it appears that the CAO wants to get rid of the watchdog.”
The grand jury received specific allegations that Harn “will not address problems by telephone, forbids his employees to speak to both staff and department heads, refuses to respond at all to any communications from certain employees and officials and is defamatory, disrespectful and disparaging.”
Harn said he categorically denies those assertions and any others that he won’t constructively work with others to solve problems. “That’s absolutely not true,” he said.
Regardless of the truth of the allegations, they highlight the extent to which problems can arise between elected officials, the grand jury said.
McCorkle said the CAO has no comment at this time except its formal response to grand jury findings will be prepared and presented to the Board of Supervisors within 90 days, as required.
“Some of the issues in the grand jury report are being addressed through the action plan to create basically a cultural transformation in the county and other aspects are being addressed by this charter review committee,” McCorkle said.
Another report described the South Lake Tahoe Probation Office work environment as “toxic.” Grand jury interviews found a clique system where some workers are “shunned” and others are favored and promoted, even if not qualified. They also found 11 managers and supervisors overseeing 33 workers.
Poor morale is detracting from a mission to enforce court orders, with bail reviews that are often of poor quality and failures to detect many parole violations, the grand jury report states.
The county probation department has a new chief, Brian Richart, who started last December.
When the grand jury did follow-up interviews, employees said the toxic environment continues, but they believe Richart is well motived and are hopeful he will institute changes to improve the work environment.
Richart said he appreciates the grand jury’s work but disputes its findings. “After spending many hours in conversation with staff on site and consulting with many of our county partners, I have found a more positive environment than was reported. In my first six months as chief, overall I have found the staff to be a committed group of professional peace officers working hard to promote change in their clients and improve public safety in the community,” he wrote in an email.
The 2013-14 grand jury report is available online at www.edcgov.us/GrandJury/