Sometimes, the “public’s right to know” ends at the door when the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors convenes in a closed session. That is particularly true when supervisors are dealing with personnel issues such as an “exit interview” with a departing department head.
An agenda item recommended by Supervisor Ray Nutting for the Tuesday, Oct. 22 meeting had urged the board to go public with the reasons former Health and Human Services Agency Director Daniel Nielson resigned with little warning earlier in the year.
“In the spirit of transparency and openness, have a discussion on inviting the former director of El Dorado County Health and Human Services to disclose publicly the reasons why he resigned,” the agenda item reads. “Have a discussion on the waiving of closed session privilege. The board members present at the former Director of El Dorado County Health and Human Services exit interview could then openly discuss the content of that meeting.”
Nutting’s item concludes with a recommendation to “reach out to other past department heads to receive feedback as to circumstances that led to their departure” and take action to address (if necessary) “similar underlying systemic problems within the county departments.”
When Clerk of the Board Jim Mitrisin finished reading the item into the record, there was no immediate reaction. However, within moments, Board Chairman Ron Briggs pulled no punches in telling his colleague that he had proposed an inappropriate, unworkable and basically terrible idea. Not far behind, County Counsel Ed Knapp reminded the board that employees enter a closed session with an expectation of privacy and confidentiality protected by any number of personnel and employment laws. To selectively open the doors could effectively shut down honest communications between employer and employee, Knapp advised.
He further pointed out that a former department head, like any private citizen, has the right to come before the board and say whatever he or she wishes to say in public, but the board does not have a comparable right or authority.
Tuesday of this week Nutting again put an item on the board’s agenda recommending that the county initiate a policy regarding “bullying and workplace violence.” During the discussion, Nutting became more and more adamant and emotional.
“I’m absolutely shocked that there’s not a definition of bullying (in county policy),” Nutting began. “I’ve received more calls than I can count (from employees) who say they’ve been unfairly blamed for mistakes, been excluded and criticized in public or experienced abusive language (from managers or supervisors) … We need a safe place for employees and businesses doing business with the county (to be heard without fear of retribution). We need to deal with this now in a non-confidential way.”
Nutting further asserted that the county has “lost millions of dollars” as good employees have left county service because of ill treatment by higher officials. At that point, Briggs turned to Nutting and suggested that the supervisor “should apologize” for having brought forward the issue of closed sessions being made public during the board meeting last week. Nutting challenged saying, “that’s your opinion,” and Briggs added, “that’s my opinion.”
Norma Santiago, supervisor for District 5 interjected that she wanted “to elevate” the conversation.
“It’s time to get an update,” she said. “We have a Human Resources Strategic Investment team dealing with this, and we (need) time to go through the process … The bottom line is that as a board we’re making a commitment to make a safe, pleasant, productive workplace because we care about our employees.”
For the good of the department
A number of regular board meeting attendees spoke in favor of the county seeking outside expertise to deal with bullying or alleged bullying by county employees. Nutting had suggested that in-house efforts have failed and Human Resources Department Director Pamela Knorr pointed out that her department has had a significant lack of continuity in the past nine years during which 11 individuals have come and gone from the position to which she was recently appointed. Knorr also brought up the fiscal aspect of implementing an anti-bullying policy but added that employee turnover also carries a fiscal impact.
Supervisor Ron Mikulaco described the challenge of 1,700 employees: “We can’t see every cubicle.” He also said, “We can’t give a tool that people can use to sue the county” and “we don’t want to adopt a policy we can’t enforce.” Coming from the private sector, Mikulaco acknowledged that “civil service is new to me.”
At that point, Nutting, struggling with emotion, asked his fellow supervisors to “give me a few minutes so I can tell you what this means to me.” He described growing up with older sister Nancy who is developmentally disabled and having to defend her and others from bullying and getting “bare-butt spanked” at school for standing up to bullies. “I will not tolerate bullying. We see bullying in closed session and I’m trying to daylight (this problem) … and shame on us for not protecting the Nancys of the world and our employees.” He repeated his “shame on the Board of Supervisors” charge several times.
“Come on Ray. You’ve been here 14 years and you’ve done nothing (about this),” Briggs challenged and then called a five-minute break and left the room while some in chambers groaned in disapproval.
Mikulaco encountered an angry woman at the door to the lobby on his way out. Liz Lawless said he hit her and ran into her. He apologized but said he had not been aware of bumping into her. Lawless said later that it had occurred during an earlier break when Mikulaco “came flying down the aisle” and brushed against her. Each accused the other of escalating the conversation by “yelling,” which began when Lawless’s husband confronted Mikulaco. She clarified to the Mountain Democrat that “he didn’t hit me intentionally, but he needs to be aware (of people around him).” She also said they had no personal stake in the meeting but were there “to support Ray.”
As the session resumed, Nutting apologized to “businesses, employees and citizens” for not having made a greater effort to deal with the problem years ago. Then addressing HR Director Knorr, Nutting said, “I guarantee you will fail. We need to go outside (for help with this problem).”
Supervisor Brian Veerkamp weighed in, saying he was “appalled that we’ve done this in this manner. (Correction) needs to start at the top and get outside help if we need it.”
Supervisor Norma Santiago said the board should expect a draft policy within two weeks and agreed that supervisors might have to consider outside expertise to deal with the issue into the future. The board then voted unanimously to direct county staff to prepare the draft policy. After the vote, Nutting again predicted that it “won’t work unless we have outside help.”
Supervisors charged Chief Administrative Officer Terri Daly with leading the effort to develop an anti-bullying policy. In response to a request for comment, Daly e-mailed the Mountain Democrat Thursday morning. She said existing policies generally “work well when a complaint is documented, facts can be independently verified and corrective measures taken when necessary. ”
Employees have the right to discuss a problem with their own supervisor or manager or any other supervisor or manager or department head within the county system, and most county employees are represented by a union or association. However, Daly continued, “Anonymous complaints are more difficult to assess. It can also be difficult to address behavior that is perhaps undesirable or unprofessional, but not unlawful. Nonetheless, I’m confident that we can craft additional feedback mechanisms to help improve the culture.”