Merced County leaders respond to rash of employee problems

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comFebruary 28, 2014 

— A series of public departures and high-profile problems involving county employees over the past two months has put the spotlight on the policies and procedures used to oversee a public agency that employs more than 2,000 people.

The year began with the high-profile resignation of county Public Defender Eric Dumars following lengthy closed-door meetings of county supervisors. Before Dumars’ resignation, the county paid more than $25,000 for an investigator to look into claims of favoritism, potential retaliation and a perceived relationship between Dumars and a Merced County supervisor’s daughter.

A few weeks later, District 1 Supervisor John Pedrozo announced that his assistant, Brenda Valenzuela-Porras was no longer a county employee. Her release came after a Sun-Star investigation showed she had checked out county vehicles despite having a suspended driver’s license – she denied driving them – and called Pedrozo to get him to intervene when she was pulled over by police for speeding in her own car.

The county did not review Valenzuela-Porras’ driving record at the time of her hire or during employment, despite the fact that she drove the county vehicle as part of her job.

A short time later, a county collections supervisor, Anthony J. Thompson, retired after being arrested by the Sheriff’s Department in a sexual bribery case. Investigators said Thompson promised to manipulate the amount of money one woman’s son owed the county in exchange for “sexual favors” and “dates.” Thompson was also the subject of an internal investigation that cost the county $30,703.20.

County Executive Officer Jim Brown said he doesn’t believe Merced County has lost the public’s trust because of the recent series of unrelated events. He said the county has addressed each issue as it has happened.

“If we don’t recommend addressing issues, that’s when we could jeopardize losing the public’s trust,” Brown said. “If you look at the situations that have been published in the Sun-Star, there has been a process that has kicked in and has resulted in us addressing the situation.”

Brown said the county is reviewing current policies, such as DMV background checks for employees, but no changes have been made thus far.

Late last year, the county implemented employee and supervisor development training courses – a first for the county.

“They weren’t as a result of these issues, but it was an area that we recognized we needed additional training,” Brown said. “We are constantly reviewing how we run our organization, and this is an area we felt we could do a better job of providing training and improving skill sets for employees and managers.”

Brown said management staff will learn “best practices” for disciplining and terminating employees. This comes in handy since department heads are the only ones who can fire employees, with direction from human resources and county counsel.

District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey said putting the focus back on the people who work for the county – not just the county numbers and the budget – will go a long way in retaining good employees.

“We don’t touch base with these people on an annual basis,” Kelsey said. “Our contact with employees is project-driven or issue-driven, but we need to focus on the larger picture. People want to see their leaders, and you need to show them you’ve got their back and you’re interested in their world.”

Kelsey said the county used to have annual reviews for employees but that they haven’t been done in many years. Brown, who’s been in the CEO job for about two years, said he has started sitting down with department heads to review performance over the past month.

Kelsey said the county’s administration often moves up the “next-in-line” person to open positions as opposed to hiring from the outside.

“Instead of going out and recruiting, we move up people that have been with the county a long time,” she said. “We’re trying to save money and get the same job done. Many of the positions we have filled without an open recruitment process have been for leadership positions.”

For example, the county recently appointed Vincent Andrade, chief deputy public defender, to act as interim public defender. However, Brown said a recruitment process is underway to fill the permanent public defender position as well as other leadership vacancies, such as county librarian and mental health director.

“In looking for upper management and department head positions, my philosophy is to try to identify the best individuals to lead the department,” Brown said. “That’s why we are now doing full recruitments statewide for our department heads.”

Brown said the biggest challenge in running an organization as large as Merced County is constantly evaluating the operation to make sure it has good people and systems in place.

Board Chairman and District 5 Supervisor Jerry O’Banion said the issues that have cropped up in the past few months have been going on for a while, though it seems they all happened at once.

“Yes, we’ve had a rash of problems in the county recently, but these folks were working for the county before, and maybe the problem should have been found and dealt with earlier on,” O’Banion said. “It’s more of an ongoing situation, and it’s now coming to light.”

O’Banion said it’s important that administrators seek advice and communicate about employee personnel issues before they arise.

“You can learn from mistakes,” he said, “and the main thing is we need to do a good job of reviewing individuals that we’re going to put into those important positions that are going to take the leadership in running departments.”

Kelsey agrees.

“You need to have department heads and administrators that actually communicate and have a clear understanding of the mission,” she said. “There’s a lot of trial and error when you hire any employee. But the background check would have been helpful, and I think we should have them for those who work in the county office.”

District 1 Supervisor John Pedrozo, District 2 Supervisor Hub Walsh and District 3 Supervisor Linn Davis did not return calls for comment.

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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