El Dorado County Board of Supervisors, at the Aug. 12 meeting, opted to close the issue of reducing the number of elected county officials.
Responding to a recommendation by the Grand Jury to put the matter to the voters of the county, the board voted unanimously not to implement the recommendation. Supervisors could have designed a ballot measure providing voters the option to change the county charter in stricter conformity with state law. Under state code, counties are only required to have three elected positions in addition to the Board of Supervisors, the sheriff, the district attorney and the assessor. All other positions could be appointed by the Board of Supervisors upon a vote of the people to change the charter.
The charter took effect in 1994. Chapter 20 in the June Grand Jury report was titled, “The El Dorado County Charter; a Prescription for Dysfunction,” and it recommended an amendment to reduce the number of elected officials to the three required by state law.
Citing three issues of concern, the report notes first that “Elected officials can refuse to cooperate with both the Board of Supervisors and the county’s Chief Administrative Officer.” Second, “Department heads, both elected and appointed, went around the CAO directly to the Board of Supervisors in support of their own positions to the detriment of the county as a whole.” Third, “Individual members of the Board of Supervisors interfered in the day-to-day administration of the county.”
Furthermore, the Grand Jury found that “conflicting provisions” in the charter “seem to assign responsibilities necessary to an effective CEO (sic) to the board itself.” All of the concerns led the jury to determine that a “failure to have clearly defined roles and responsibilities hinders communication and efficiency.” And therefore, “confusion reigns and morale suffers,” the report states.
The jury not only recommended an end to the four elected positions, it called for greater clarification of job duties between supervisors and chief administrative officer, and “All county employees should be hired by and report to the CAO.”
The board adopted the same response to both recommendations. Under specific codes, supervisors have four possible responses to a grand jury recommendation, including explanations where necessary: “the recommendation has been implemented; the recommendation has not yet been implemented, but will be implemented in the future (timeframe); the recommendation requires further analysis (during a period of not more than six months); the recommendation will not be implemented because it is not warranted or is not reasonable.”
Supervisors chose the latter and directed CAO analyst Ross Branch to compose a draft copy with their explanations and clarifications.
Defending the jury’s recommendations before the vote, a member of last year’s Grand Jury and this year’s jury foreman, Jim Kern, began by calling the current organizational structure of the county “totally convoluted.” Supervisors are the “governing board” of the county, yet they have term limits and a salary he called modest compared to that of other electeds who have no term limits. With respect to the other elected officials in the county, “I’m being capricious here. How do you even know if they show up every day?” he challenged.
Kern likened the CAO’s job to “herding cats in a strange system in which she can’t enforce board directives to electeds.”
County Assessor Karl Weiland and Recorder-Clerk Bill Shultz gave historical perspectives, telling the board that both positions had been elective since the mid-19th century. Weiland, “respectfully disagreeing” with the jury’s finding, noted that his department is overseen by and subject to an annual audit by the State Board of Equalization. “The Grand Jury missed a lot of pieces of this,” Weiland concluded.
Schultz was more passionate, quipping that he’d “only been in El Dorado County government since 1972.” He expanded on Weiland’s remarks, clarifying that the county charter had nothing to do with the Recorder and Assessor being elective offices. He said elected officials “are more responsive to the public,” and electeds represent “government of, by and for the people, and those who violate the public trust pay the price.”
Schultz went on to say that the electeds work for the entire county and are answerable to the people and that he doesn’t know “where the (opposing) argument comes from. (An elected Recorder-Clerk) has been here since 1850; give me a break!”
Calling the voter the “ultimate decision-maker,” Supervisor Brian Veerkamp voiced the board’s general reaction to the recommendations. “I don’t think we can supersede that process. It’s pretty clear,” he said.
Supervisor Ron Briggs said he agreed with much of what Veerkamp said but acknowledged that term limits for supervisors but not for other elected officials represents a “great inequity.”
Recognizing inconsistency in the codes, Supervisor Ron Mikulaco said, “It has never hindered my ability to do my job,” and “if morale or programs have failed, I would have to see evidence.” Mikulaco earlier noted that he ‘”would need overwhelming evidence (of personal or systemic inefficiencies) to overturn the public’s will.” With respect to staff and administrators and elected officials bypassing the CAO and going straight to the board, Mikulaco said, “I didn’t know we had a problem.”
As written, some of the Grand Jury report is difficult to interpret, and supervisors hashed over responses attempting to address parts of a recommendation while leaving other aspects unanswered. For example, “Finding number 5″ states: “Involvement by individual members of the Board of Supervisors in the day-to-day administration of county functions results in chaos, confusion and poor morale among employees.”
The only answers acceptable under this element of the Grand Jury rules are “The respondent agrees with the finding.” Or, “The respondent disagrees wholly or partially with the finding (explanation required).”
The board’s response to Finding number 5 was, “The respondent agrees with the finding.” Supervisors, however did not localize or personalize the veracity of the statement, did not acknowledge any personal or collective application in the statement, didn’t say that they had been guilty of such behavior, didn’t say they’d witnessed their fellows or predecessors engaged in such behavior or that any behavior as described had ever occurred in county government. Neither did they say such behaviors haven’t occurred. It’s not required by the Grand Jury report/response rules.
On the other hand, El Dorado County Employees Association Local 1 Executive Director Jere Copeland said, “I’ve been through three sets of boards (and) a lot of times supervisors reached out to employees and (went) around the structure.”
Throughout the report, the jury’s authors refer to numerous letters, e-mails and interviews with county staff that led to Finding number 5, however, due to the confidentiality of the system, the public has no foundation on which to judge the merits of the complaints or the merits of the report. It leans heavily on the county’s Workplace Climate Assessment completed by several hundred county workers in late winter and early spring. As described by the consultants who conducted the research, the survey showed a “culture of fear” rampant throughout county employment, yet a number of departments were rated in the high 80s and 90s on a 100-point scale. And employee morale scored high as well.
Placerville resident Larry Weitzman slammed the interpretation of the assessment, citing the numbers that 88 percent of county employees like the people they work with and 90 percent are happy working for the county. Weeks earlier, Weitzman had challenged the validity of the assessment as having sprung from nothing because there was no prior baseline by which to measure other aspects of the data. The Grand Jury report he called “basically incoherent — with no facts and no evidence. If all these officials are appointed, you’ll get a bunch of yes-men. Voters are smart, they elected you,” he concluded.
While denying its two board-related recommendations, Veerkamp and Briggs thanked the Grand Jury for its work and said the county has already moved forward on several issues that were suggested in other parts of the report.