Probe of County Public Works Finds Culture of Dysfunction

bustamantemug070312p

Booking mug shot of Santa Ana Councilman Carlos Bustamante, who was arrested on multiple sex crime charges.

A long-awaited internal probe into Orange County Public Works department reveals a dysfunctional organization plagued with meddling from county supervisors’ offices and CEO Tom Mauk on contracts for influential contractors as well as on property improvements for select constituents.

The report, obtained by Voice of OC, found that “past OC Public Works executive leadership has created cultures of favoritism, poor communication, organizational manipulation, and discrimination that have spawned low morale, distrust, and fear within OCPW.”

The report also found that a poorly staffed county Human Resources division was a major factor in creating an environment in which allegations of sexual misconduct against executive manager Carlos Bustamante were not handled properly. District Attorney Tony Rackauckas has charged Bustamante, who is also a Santa Ana city councilman, with more than a dozen sex crimes against at least seven women who worked for him over an eight-year period.

“Acts and omissions by OCPW Human Resources in carrying out its duties in the hiring, investigation, enforcement, and disciplinary processes contributed significantly to the creation of this environment with OCPW,” the report noted.

The report indicates that other sexual harassment claims could be filed.

“Additionally, there were other instances of discriminatory and sexually charged workplaces within OCPW that were reported by staff that are unrelated to the current District Attorney investigation. These reports were instances that occurred in the last two years.

"The Independent Review Team could not access information related to the resolution of these reports, but awareness of these situations by OCPW staff have reinforced their distrust of Department leadership and OCPW HR and has impacted morale within OCPW.”

The report also severely criticizes Deputy CEO Alisa Drakodaidis, who oversees Public Works. The report states Drakodaidis, who put herself on medical leave and sent a critical letter to the Board of Supervisors in the wake of the Bustamante charges, engaged in “micromanagement” on a variety of levels that helped degrade department morale.

County officials have declined to release Drakodaidis’ letter despite the fact that sources say it reads like a claim against taxpayers and claims are supposedly public record. Sources who have seen the letter say it makes a series of allegations against supervisors for meddling on county contracts and for questionable hiring of staff aides.

Several sources believe Drakodaidis’ letter was a preemptive strike against the assessment from the county Office of Independent Review. Indeed, one of its top criticisms is aimed at Drakodaidis.

“Micromanagement by the Deputy CEO has significantly added to distrust and fear among OCPW employees at all levels; and has erected barriers in communication between the OC Public Works, CEO, and the Board of Supervisors,” the report concluded.

According to the report, “the most predominate comment from employees at all levels highlighted the controlling and unprofessional manner in which the Deputy CEO exerted authority. The most often mentioned example was micromanagement of ASR's (Agenda Staff Reports).”

Apparently, Drakodaidis was a heavy-handed editor often introducing errors, the report states. Each of her edits would put agenda staff reports for county supervisor meetings behind schedule, the report asserted.

There are indications that Drakodaidis also exerted influence on certain contracts.

From the report:

Several of OCPW staff reported the Deputy CEO also exerted influence in operational matters by directly contacting employees and directing specific work to be done without using any recognized lines of organizational structure or regard for the chain-of-command.

Some staff indicated the Deputy CEO would also arrange and conduct meetings with OC Public Works consultants and clients, and often demean OCPW employees in those meetings. Examples of occurrences where misleading or inaccurate information was conveyed by the Deputy CEO to parties within and outside of OCPW were cited by some of the employees. The Independent Review Team's opinion is that this conduct has contributed to lower morale and increased discord within OCPW, sometimes leading to unnecessary turnover of critical staff.

The report cautioned the Board of Supervisors, stating “the CEO should ensure that the opinions and directives from his office and deputies do not override OCPW technical staff in those areas where they are held legally responsible through licenses and professional standards for compliance with certain state and federal laws for the County.”

An odd twist to the report is that while it is highly critical of the culture created at OC Public Works in recent years, the probe was conducted by some of the highest-ranking retirees from the department, including former directors Herb Nakasone, who retired in 2007, and Ken R. Smith, who retired in 2004; Jan Goss, who headed county Waste and Recycling and retired in 2009; and Bob Wilson, who held numerous executive management positions throughout county government, including Public Works and retired in March.

The report noted:

In particular, senior leadership and institutional knowledge have been depleted by transfers, retirements, and resignations of key managers. These losses have taken many seasoned and experienced leaders but even more importantly have severely depleted the institutional memory of the Department.

The Independent Review team has noted that losses of key leaders over the last 2 to 3 years have been driven more by the culture of OCPW and County administration than by attrition due to retirement and self-improvement.

The former executives began their investigation after Public Works Director Jess Carbajal was placed on administrative leave and the Bustamante matter was referred to Rackauckas.

Their 28-page report is the result of 85 interviews between April 17 and May 31. It seeks to “identify any organizational changes that would immediately assist OC Public Works in performing its function more effectively and assess the culture of the organization.”

The report did not dovetail with the district attorney’s ongoing investigative probe into OC Public Works.

Its recommendations are directed toward Interim Director Ignacio Ochoa and paint an ugly picture of the executive managers that run the department and their relationship to Mauk and the Board of Supervisors.

The report describes “a select few trusted executives and/or managers” who ran the department as they saw fit. “Decisions were often made without consulting managers and supervisors with the most technical knowledge, or those most impacted by decisions.”

From the report:

This mistrust of Department leadership was heightened by an abuse of hiring practices by placing people loyal to specific executive management in positions of authority, whether they were well qualified or not. This resulted in a culture of favored vs. non-favored managers and employees within the OCPW. Many hirings and promotions seemed to be accompanied by uncharacteristic salary increases.

The report also details a highly politicized environment when it comes to public works contracts. One of the report’s central findings “discusses the existence of overt acts of favoritism, discrimination, and organizational manipulation within OCPW over recent years.”

The report noted that some divisions within Public Works, such as Watershed Management, were neglected while “an overabundance of attention was given to those work units that garnered the interest of the CEO, Board, or influential clients.”

The report also noted instances where individual county supervisors offices and top officials extended their authority beyond what had been approved in open session on public works contracts.

The report found that “County directives to perform work on or for the protection of private property have blurred the line of legal public expenditures for operations and maintenance personnel.”

One of Public Works' most important tasks is managing natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, landslides and fires, and according to the report “the Board of Supervisors has the authority to consider and direct employees to perform work necessary to protect citizens and their property.”

Yet the report found bending of the rules on behalf of certain unnamed constituents:

In some cases individual Board offices, the CEO and/or the OCPW Director have subsequently extended this authority beyond the original scope of Board action. Some of these directives appear to be for the purpose of satisfying constituents instead of responding to dangerous situations. Without opining whether these directives were appropriate or not, they have resulted in OCPW employees questioning whether subsequent directives were appropriate.

The directives from upper management to perform these actions have blurred the line for field workers on what is appropriate and what is not. These actions result in the loss of credibility of the Board, CEO and Department leadership.

Among the report’s main recommendations is a suggestion that county supervisors adopt regulations to ensure that “All orders for public employees to work on private property shall be at the direction of the majority of the Board of Supervisors, either in accordance with existing Board adopted policy or by adoption of the Board at a scheduled meeting.”

The report also calls for a general approach to public works projects that “Neither the CEO, individual Board Offices, nor Department leadership shall direct public employees to work on private property based on their sole directive.”

Please contact Norberto Santana Jr. directly at nsantana@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/norbertosanana.

Comments are closed.