El Dorado County’s Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved an action plan to implement and enforce a Respectful Workplace Policy they enacted earlier this year.
Supervisors also pledged up to $250,000 more for efforts to improve a workplace where a significant number of county employees in an anonymous survey complained about a “culture of fear” with bullying, harassment, retaliation, nepotism and misconduct by county leaders.
“It doesn’t matter what position you have, elected or not, or a position of leadership. This is going to be a consistent plan and policy for everyone,” Supervisor Norma Santiago said.
Efforts will focus on better training and inter-departmental communication, stronger orientations for people in management positions, education about county policies and immediate management audits of the human resources and auditor-controller’s offices.
Those offices generated significant negative comments in surveys administered as part of the ongoing workplace assessment and improvement initiative that county supervisors have already committed up to $140,000 toward.
County supervisors said they also will be encouraging employees to file formal complaints about any perceived violations of the Respectful Workforce Policy. Those complaints will be investigated within 45 days by an external and independent special master yet to be selected. They will then be sent back to the proper county officials with a formal recommendation on what disciplinary or corrective actions should be taken.
“We see today as a new beginning that embraces open and respectful behavior,” El Dorado County Human Resources Director Pamela Knorr said in a press release about the supervisors’ action. “The action plan will build a bridge over to the new culture and a much more positive future for El Dorado County, its employees and its citizens.”
Knorr is the county’s 11th human resources director in a decade.
Santiago tried to keep Tuesday’s discussion focused on polices, procedures and processes. Mike Applegarth, an analyst in the Chief Administrative Office, as well as several people affiliated with Garden Valley Fire Protection District and a handful of former county employees, spoke out against the behavior of Auditor-Controller Joe Harn. Such complaints were also raised at an April 28 supervisors meeting.
Applegarth said he is speaking against Harn’s abusive behavior to show other county employees it is safe to come forward. Applegarth said he has been accused of political grandstanding and being the “minion” of Mike Owen, who is running against Harn for auditor-controller in Harn’s first contested campaign in two decades. Applegarth staunchly denied the accusations.
“Over the last two weeks I have been overwhelmed by support for my statements,” Applegarth said. “The only thing I have been able to do is encourage these people to come forward publicly and trust that the board of supervisors will do the right thing with the information. Unfortunately, most are still too afraid.”
Chief Administrative Officer Terri Daly spoke in support of Applegarth and other county employees who fear for their job, department or program if they speak out against bullying, harassment, retaliation or other workplace policy violations. She said 18 employees came to her wanting to speak out against abuses but were too afraid after the April 28 meeting.
“It’s a sad state of affairs to me that people are afraid to tell you things because of retaliation,” Daly told the supervisors.
Daly vowed to protect county employees who file a complaint from any retaliation and urged supervisors to make the same pledge. She said turning around El Dorado County’s “culture of fear” and bad behavior is the most significant endeavor the board of supervisors has taken on. In written comments to the board, Daly said she thinks she has failed Applegarth and other employees in that effort so far, but implored the supervisors to push forward with the effort.
“I failed Mike — and many other employees — in the past by not protecting him from inappropriate behavior from some in county leadership. I failed them with my silence, with my acquiescence, with my optimistic belief that I could change things collaboratively, and, frankly, with my fear of being terminated myself,” Daly wrote.