Merced County must look harder at future hires, grand jury says

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comJuly 1, 2014 

Merced County’s hiring and screening policies need to be changed to include criminal background and driving record checks for all employees and future hires, according to the county’s civil grand jury report, which was released this week.

“We feel that failing to make the changes could put the county in the position of negative litigation in the future,” noted the report.

The monthlong internal investigation was spurred by a series of Sun-Star articles that detailed the county’s hiring practices. Earlier this year, county officials admitted they did not check the driving record of a personal assistant who checked out company vehicles on a suspended license after a DUI arrest.

The assistant had three points on her driving record when she was hired, according to Department of Motor Vehicles records.

Jurors recommended all county employees and new workers have their driver’s licenses checked and then be placed on the DMV pull program, which notifies the county of changes to an employee’s driving record. Currently, the county checks driving records only for positions that require driving as part of the job, mainly delivery drivers and public works officials.

“What we are recommending is that all employees should be a part of that program,” said civil grand jury foreman Roscoe Jackson, “so that when something does come up or change, the county will know.”

The report also recommended conducting a criminal history check through the Department of Justice and FBI for all new hires, as well as credit checks and a reference/work history check.

The investigation found no credit checks are done during the hiring process, except for certain department heads. Departments within the county do their own hiring and are responsible for reference and work history checks, though there is no written policy requiring them.

The county checks a candidate’s criminal background only for positions that require such checks by state law. Those positions include employees who work with children, seniors, or people with physical or mental disabilities.

Jackson said not checking the backgrounds of prospective employees could expose the county to bigger problems down the road. “These things are important because it prevents something from coming up later on in that person’s employment history,” he said. “I think it helps you sleep better at night to know that you made the check.”

Jurors also suggested the county develop a written code of ethics for those who sit on the county Board of Supervisors. All Merced County employees are under a code of ethics except the board, the report noted.

Merced County officials on Tuesday declined comment on whether the recommended changes will be made, saying they need more time to review the report. County officials said they received the report late in the day Tuesday. “Having just received the 2013-14 Civil Grand Jury Report today, we need time to appropriately review the document and its recommendations,” Human Resources Director Marci Barrera said in a written statement.

Jackson said the 19-member civil grand jury is just an advisory body and cannot compel the county to make changes.

“They call us the watchdog of the county, but we can’t enforce anything or make the county adhere to the recommendations,” Jackson said, adding that past civil grand jury investigations have led to changes. “I believe they are reviewing their policies right now, but I’m not sure what they are going to do.”

Departments are given 60 days from issuance of the report to respond. County officials said they will issue a response with “more details” at that time.

 

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

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