El Dorado County Supervisors unanimously approved development of a systematic approach to improving working conditions for employees and improving service to the public. The board’s May 13 meeting was a forum for continuing the effort to establish the county as a “Respectful Workplace.” A “cultural assessment” survey conducted earlier this year showed a significant number of staff complaints resulting in a widespread “culture of fear” among county employees.
Prepared and administered by consultants with the Municipal Resources Group and the VanDermyden Maddux law firm, the survey was completed by more than 1,200 of the county’s approximately 1,900 employees. While overall roughly 60 percent responded that they are satisfied with the county as an employer, about 40 percent said they are not. The core reason for general dissatisfaction was reported to be “harassment, intimidation and retaliation,” according to consultants Mary Egan and Sue Ann VanDermyden.
The “fix-it” prescribed by the consultants and Human Resources director Pamela Knorr features a combination of reviewing and revising existing policies as necessary and establishing training programs for employees, management and elected officials. “We’re coming back with a plan,” Egan told the board, stressing that “consistency and equality of standards” would be the goal. Under the plan, she said “individuals will be held accountable and retrained through a code of ethics.”
Rick Bolanos, an attorney with the law firm of Liebert, Cassidy and Whitmore, described his work of reviewing the survey results “to establish a baseline” of data on which to build the plan. He described his efforts in the context of the survey as “not investigative.” Statements of concern and generalized complaints drive the need for “a process to move forward in a way that adheres to state law and county policy,” Bolanos explained.
Referred to as “non-EEO” incidents, county administration is devising a formal process for employees to make complaints about behaviors that don’t rise to the level of Equal Employment Opportunity Act violations. County Counsel Ed Knapp explained to the board April 29 that EEO cases are not a problem and are being handled through established procedures. Under the EEO Act, individuals and groups are classified in “protected” status by federal and state laws from discrimination on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation.
“Harassment, intimidation and retaliation” as noted in the survey generally were not claimed to be directed at a member of a “protected” group. More subtle and more difficult to gather valid evidence, nevertheless, such bad behavior by bosses or fellow employees may be significantly detrimental in the workplace. Many survey participants acknowledged they would not report such actions for fear of retaliation by supervisors while others said they would not report because they believed it would not be effectively addressed by management.
Codifying or “institutionalizing” a reporting process is a major element of the plan. Staff and consultants have developed a “Respectful Workplace Form 111″ on which employees will write their complaints or allegations, documenting events or incidents. They must sign the form and therefore have no claim to anonymity. Bolanos recommended the county employ a third-party “special master” to review initial complaints and to pass on either to an outside investigator or refer back to the county’s Human Resources department for appropriate action. Although complainants have protected rights from retaliation, Bolanos said, “It can’t be anonymous, so the county has the information it needs to move forward with the policy.”
A special master is an attorney specializing in cases that may involve confidentiality, selected by a court from an approved state list. The special master is charged with securing certain evidentiary items necessary for prosecution while safeguarding the confidentiality of individuals connected to an agency.
Pamela Knorr laid out what Bolanos called an “aggressive and creative” effort by the county. Under the plan all employees “will be retrained with regard to respectful workplace, code of ethics, personnel rules, and harassment, discrimination and retaliation policies.” A second part of the retraining involves: “Enhanc(ing) awareness of respectful workplace policy and reporting procedure.”
In a “recommitment to ethical, appropriate and efficient countywide conduct,” the administration will review and update policies as needed and “revise ambiguous administrative and financial policies.”
As part of their approval, supervisors authorized, in concept, a future budget of up to $250,000 for implementation of the “Respectful Workplace” plan but not before a number of current and past employees and members of the public weighed in on the proposals. In a reprise of remarks he made during an April 28 special meeting, CAO Principal Analyst Mike Applegarth once again challenged the board with respect to enforcement of policies and practices and stood by his earlier condemnation of Auditor-Controller Joe Harn.
“I’m here to show employees that it is safe to come forward,” Applegarth said. He said his actions were “not a distraction from Supervisor Nutting,” or part of a wider political conspiracy against Harn, and “my boss didn’t make me do this.”
Applegarth invited board members to his home to share a meal and review documentation he said he has detailing specific instances of ill-treatment from Harn. He added that he has been overwhelmed by letters and communications of support from other employees but noted, “most are still afraid.”
Lindel Price, a member of the Trails Advisory Committee, told the board that she had been disrespected by county staff during committee meetings.
Chief Administrative Officer Terri Daly, “speaking as a member of the public,” said the project is the most significant thing the county has taken on. She offered three points in her comments. First she thanked Applegarth for his courage and informed the board that “18 people who report to you have come to me without the courage of Mike.” Second, she advised the board to “spend the money as it’s needed.” Finally, she said, “Anyone who comes forward to the special master, I pledge to protect them from retaliation.”
District 4 Supervisor Ron Briggs adopted Daly’s pledge “for protection of whistle blowers or whatever you call them.” He also railed against the requirement of term limits for county supervisors but not for other elected officials. The system is “cattywampus and upside down,” he said.
District 3 Supervisor Brian Veerkamp advised, “If the buck doesn’t stop with us, it’s throwing away $250,000 … We need to protect our employees. Accountability goes to the top.”
“I hope it (the plan) eliminates the fear factor,” District 2’s Ray Nutting said just before the vote. “Fear is a terrible, terrible thing.”
Contact Chris Daley at 530-344-5063 or [email protected] Follow @CDaleyMtDemo.