Report: ‘Climate of fear’ for county staff | SierraSun.com

Report: ‘Climate of fear’ for county staff

Britt Retherford and David Bunker
Sun News Service and Sierra Sun

Nevada County’s top elected officials have been charged with bullying county employees by demeaning them during public meetings and making them feel at risk of losing their jobs, according to a Civil Grand Jury report released Wednesday.

“A climate of fear exists when employees see managers being publicly demeaned by Board of Supervisor members, high-level employees leaving in significant numbers, and what they perceive as micro-managing occurring,” reads one of the Grand Jury’s conclusions.

Barbara Green, who served as Truckee and eastern Nevada County’s representative on the board during the period the grand jury investigated, said the report was “right on.”

“It was painful to watch the abusive interrogation of staff during board meetings,” Green said.

She said the board’s changing political makeup halfway through her term produced a lot of tension, creating a “toxic environment” for staff.

“(The new supervisors) came on the board thinking that we were the enemy and they tried to fix everything we had done,” Green said.

The politics of that switch often spilled over into rude and uncivil behavior toward staff, she said.

But Ted Owens, who sits as the chairman of the board of supervisors after taking over Green’s seat, said the current board has already taken care of many of the problems outlined in the report.

“I think that it is kind of interesting because this board, independent of the Grand Jury, has instituted many of the (jury’s) recommendations,” Owens said. “This board has committed to a code of conduct and civility.”

Owens said that he has never experienced uncivil behavior toward the county’s staff in the three months he has been on the board.

“The Grand Jury report is more relevant to past boards,” he said.

Some of the criticism targeted the county executive officer, who the report said did not buffer employees from the politics of the board.

Rick Haffey, who currently holds the county CEO position, said he had mixed feelings about the jury’s findings.

“I compliment the Grand Jury on the fact they tried to be balanced,” Haffey said. However, “there are some (findings) I did not agree with,” he said. “I personally know 80 to 90 percent of the employees and I don’t see a lot of fear existing here.”

Turnover of the county’s staff in the past three years is what prompted the investigation by the Grand Jury, a group of 19 volunteer citizens that serves as watchdogs for the public. The Grand Jury found that the exodus of almost two dozen county department heads and directors stemmed from:

– Their job duties becoming politically charged and uncomfortable.

– Retirement.

– Better opportunities arising.

Resignations have been accompanied by a variety of explanations, from “personal and professional reasons” to charges that the entire structure of county government is laced with micromanagement problems.

Hank Foley, who resigned last summer as director of the Community Health Department, said at the time that he was tired of the “county bureaucratic system.”

“Micromanaging goes on endlessly in this county,” he said in 2004. “They’re continuously questioning and second guessing.”

Haffey explained that while a few individuals may have left on sour notes in recent years, a majority of those who left did so either because of a better opportunity or to retire. He said the Grand Jury failed to look more seriously at factors such as demographics and an aging population that desires higher paying pre-retirement jobs.

The new Grand Jury report criticizes Haffey and his predecessors for not acting as buffers between the employees and their elected supervisors. The political climate in the county has been heated at times during the past few years as board members reflected widely differing views in the county, often split on issues such as growth and property rights.

This may have added to some discomfort on occasion during meetings, but “it happens everywhere … no more so here than anywhere else. It is not a hostile environment,” Haffey said.

He added that the atmosphere of the board meetings is different now with the newly elected board, describing it as more “collegial.”

The Grand Jury has a policy of not commenting on its reports.

The Board of Supervisors has until June 22 to respond to the Grand Jury report, but Haffey said that regardless, he will be using the information to look at the way the county is being run.

“I take Grand Jury reports very seriously,” Haffey said, “and I see it as an opportunity to take a closer look.”