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County Notes: Insults, Indecisiveness & Inaction

Item 4a on Tuesday, July 25, 2023’s Board Agenda: “Discussion and Possible Action to Direct Staff to Initiate Modernization of New Hire and Annual Employee Standards Including Position-Appropriate Physical, Psychological, Moral Character and Computer Literacy. (Sponsor: Supervisor Williams) 

Supervisor John Haschak didn’t like the implications of the item: “We all know the process is taking a long time to get qualified people into positions. We need to really look at that. This is a time when we cannot provide a COLA to our employees, when we are asking for increases in health care contributions from the employees, and we are having trouble filling a lot of the positions. It just seems like this agenda item is a slam at the physical, psychological and moral character of our applicants. I just don't see it as helpful at this point. If I were an employee, which I am an employee, I would be really taken aback by this. If we are going to do a pilot program I suggest that we apply these standards to the Board of Supervisors first and see who's left standing because if we look at it, just the way it's phrased, I think it will not do us good in negotiations. And I don't see it as helpful with morale.”

Supervisor Glenn McGourty: “In our system that we have right now with our eligibility lists and our scheduling interviews and getting back to employees is one of the things that I think is problematic and really needs to be addressed and worked on.”

CEO Darcie Antle: “We could bring back a draft in the fall. We could target October. We could work with HR [Human Resources] and the Golden Gate team. I believe HR has already begun some of this work. So we are moving forward.”

Supervisor Ted Williams: “I see setting higher standards as a benefit for labor. I'm more likely to work in an environment where there are high standards. When people come to Mendocino County and look at the way we work, the skill set, the tools we use, it's not only wages, it's also that we are living in the dark ages. Requiring that people already have learned computer skills or the county takes a role in actively training, maybe it's a two week training program upon joining the county. It's not the worst thing for society that the county takes on educating our workforce. Even if they don't stay with us it's a benefit overall. I disagree about it being a negative morale impact. I think it leaves the county in a stronger position to hire.”

Haschak: “Certainly we want people who are computer literate. But when you throw in these other things about physical, psychological and moral character of the applicants or the employees, that is sending a message that these things are not already being considered by our people hiring people. I think they are being considered. I think that every one of them — the people hiring in this county want the best applicants. It's just sending a message that is not positive. To say that we have a long history of paying settlements for employee misconduct, high health care premiums, paid administrative leave — do you have any data for that? Those are accusations and they just paint a picture of negativity instead of problem-solving.”

Williams: “County Counsel has warned me to keep my mouth shut as to specifics. We don't want claims. All I can point to is closed session. I've been here the same length as you, Supervisor Haschak. I have seen it. I have seen situations that could have been prevented with a simple background check.”

Supervisor Maureen Mulheren was chairing the meeting while Supervisor McGourty was home in semi-quarantine having been exposed to covid: “I don't want to do the back and forth. Each supervisor can work with the deputy CEO and direct their concerns and certainly Supervisor Haschak, if you feel that this is not a fit, I would love to see you be able to work with Deputy CEO to make sure the kind of guidance that you think are more appropriate are included. We are not going to get to an end-all be-all between everybody's opinions, but hopefully we are able to work over the next few months with all the departments and with the CEO and the team at the Executive Office to come up with something that will work for the board. I appreciate everybody's passion around this subject.”

The motion, including Williams’ idea of “including position-appropriate physical, psychological and moral character,” carried 4-1 with Haschak dissenting. As usual, no due dates were imposed, no key provisions were highlighted for staff. 

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We agree that the item as worded is insulting in the same casual manner as when Williams told the Mendocino Voice that nobody would notice if the employees went on strike. Williams also could have easily provided (or volunteered to provide) the “data” that Haschak requested about claim payouts without getting on the wrong side of County Counsel if that was his real concern. (Williams is big on assertions and demands, light on specifics and data.) There did seem to be some wishy-washy agreement that the hiring process takes too long, that some employees could use some computer training, and that the County should do better background checks (among many other things that Human Resources is failing to do as bluntly delineated in a recent Grand Jury report). 

Instead, all we have is the usual meandering, inconclusive discussion without any clear direction using mushy, clumsy phrases like “we need to look at that…” “we could bring back…” “needs to be worked on…” “some of these items…” “we are moving forward…” and “the next few months…” 

No wonder the employees are so pissed off they voted to authorize a strike, probably targeted for Labor Day. Even the Board’s own ill-thought out ideas seem to fall on deaf ears or disappear in a cloud of fuzziness, much less the union’s fairly mild proposals. With this kind of amorphous non-leadership, the Board is essentially baiting the employees, pushing them into the kind of corner that produced that nearly unanimous strike authorization vote last weekend.

PS. At present there are four former employee lawsuits pending against the County: Former Ag Commissioner Harinder Grewal, Former Public Health Director Barbara Howe, a former Board clerk, and former probation officer Amanda Carley. From what we know of these cases — all of which were initiated years ago and have been discussed at length in these pages back when — none of them had anything to do with inadequate background checks and all of them should have been settled years ago for a lot less money than the County has paid out in outside lawyer fees.

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First District Supervisor Candidate Adam Gaska adds:

Item 4a didn’t sit well with me. I don’t understand why this item came to the board meeting. County management staff should be empowered to make whatever necessary changes to the hiring process to cover the bases and avoid issues from hiring what turns out to be a bad employee. Maybe one of the current lawsuits could have been prevented if they had just done a simple Google search of Harindar Grewal, they would have seen he was involved in a violent fracas at a Sikh temple. Maybe he could have explained it away, maybe not. In the end, it was really Carmel who handled his firing wrong. She should have went through the steps to document workplace grievances to rightfully fire him or gone to the BOS to request buying out his contract. That would have been much cheaper than the legal bills that have been racked up so far.

The big one that stuck out was “moral character”. Who is the moral authority that is going to deem what disqualifies one from working for Mendocino County? I understand they recently had an employee get arrested, and subsequently fired, for possessing child pornography. Beyond a Livescan and background check, there’s nothing that would have caught him which in this case, I don’t think he had a prior record so it wouldn’t have.

I do remember hiring cannabis director Kristin Nevedal saying at one of her reports that they had hired two planners and that after hiring, they realized hat they didn’t have driver’s licenses so couldn’t go do inspections. That oversight is the fault of herself and county Human Resources. There should be standard qualifications spelled out on the application and be a part of the employment contract. This is pretty standard, basic stuff.

They need to streamline the hiring process. If they find qualified people, get them to work within 30 days of their application or the deadline for applying. 45 days tops.

This is work that can and should be handled in county offices; it doesn’t need to come to the board meeting.

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AMONG THE FLURRY of recent random comments by Supervisor Ted Williams on our website, we found one of them to be worthy of note. Williams was defending the board’s month-long upcoming “summer recess” against critics who decried the Board’s taking a month off while seemingly important County business went unaddressed. Williams denied that they were taking time off saying that “being available” or going to a few non-Board meetings was equivalent to “work.” And, when one commenter said they should meet more often to keep meetings from being extra-long, Williams claimed that “I’m available every day of the year to meet, so I don’t really have a preference, but looking at the cost of meetings, it’s better to have fewer, longer meetings. By cost, I mean staff time, in dollars and productivity.”

This is classic Williams casuistry. There is very little “dollar” cost for extra meetings, staffers and supervisors get the same pay whether they’re in a meeting or not. Most of the “meetings” — which, like board meetings, produce very little official results — go unrecorded and uncovered by local media. Former Boards of Supervisors routinely held more than two meetings a month before the days of zoom and youtube without a word about the “cost.” And if Williams is so concerned about “productivity” he 1) should look at his own Board’s lack of any actual accomplishments they can claim credit for, and 2) do more to keep high-paid staff from having to sit around on hold for hours and hours of unrelated Board meeting blather as they are unable to do whatever they might be doing otherwise. PS. In June when they were scheduled to discuss the FY2023-2024 budget they had so much trouble preparing for, they spent only a a half a day of the scheduled two days before rubberstamping what the CEO recommended and didn’t discuss or examine any of the departmental budgets.

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