County HR Director Reorganizing Amid Wave of Scandals

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In the wake of numerous unfolding sex scandals inside county government, Human Resources Director Steve Danley is in the midst of a complete makeover of the department that is accused of dropping the ball on several internal investigations.

In a recent memo, Danley updated the Orange County Board of Supervisors on the makeover, advising them that Human Resources is about to be re-centralized after years of being administered from inside other agencies.

There is widespread agreement that the decentralization has been a disaster, one that put HR officials in the unenviable position of having to investigate their own bosses.

That was the situation faced at county Public Works, where a human resources official had to investigate sex crime accusations against former executive and Santa Ana City Councilman Carlos Bustamante. The HR official cleared Bustamante, but Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas looked into the matter and charged Bustamante with a dozen felony sex crimes against seven women.

At county Waste & Recycling, former HR manager Kathleen Tahilramani alleged in a recent lawsuit that her career ended when she had to investigate allegations against her boss, Mike Giancola.

“It’s turned out to be a mistake,” said Danley. “It just allowed departments to compartmentalize their human resources activities. Decentralization only works if you have a strong central HR that provides oversight.”

Danley said he expects to submit a re-centralization plan to supervisors within a few months. However, one snag already is that most independently elected county officials, such as treasurer-tax collector, district attorney, sheriff and clerk-recorder, said they want to keep human resource functions under their own wing. To date, the only independent office that supports re-centralization is the auditor-controller.

Board of Supervisors Chairman John Moorlach said he supports efforts to re-centralize Human Resources, noting that as former, independently elected treasurer-tax collector, he found he didn’t have the resources or staff to effectively handle human resources within his small department.

Moorlach added that centralization has real cost-savings potential because it could result in cutting some jobs throughout the bureaucracy.

Moorlach said decentralization was the result in the late 1990s of strong department heads, like former Airport Director Jan Mittermeier and Sheriff Brad Gates, who wanted to administer their own purchasing and human resources.

“They felt they would have a stronger department if they had their own HR and purchasing,” Moorlach said.

When Mittermeier was promoted to county CEO, the decentralization of HR and purchasing got the green light. Moorlach still remembers a former department head noting that the pendulum was about to swing back, given that it had been a decade or so since everything had been centralized.

Yet having HR and purchasing under your own department is convenient, and there’s an understanding of the resistance.

“It’s a natural reaction,” Danley said. “If you’re used to having control, it’s hard to give that up. I get it. I wish they would let us do it but that’s their call.”

Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, agrees with Moorlach and Danley that a central HR is important.

“It’s the only way you can monitor consistent application of human resources policies,” Berardino said. “Otherwise, you have a bunch of independent agents out there doing their own thing. That’s how they got in the current crisis.

“It’s ridiculous to think that a subordinate can direct his or her superior,” Berardino said.

Danley wrote in his Sept. 12 memo that other areas of recent progress  include:

  • Establishing the Compliance Oversight Committee.
  • Revising the county’s equal employment opportunity policy.
  • Training to prevent sexual harassment.
  • Addressing the lack of an equal employment opportunity officer.
  • Working with human resources issues inside county Public Works.
  • Implementing 50 audit findings from last year’s report by the county Performance Auditor report on county Human Resources.
  • Continuing to negotiate with all major labor groups.
  • Conducting open enrollment for employee benefits.
  • Planning for succession.

“The cumulative impact of the aforementioned activities equate to enormous change, over a short period of time, to an organizational culture that has deteriorated for more than a decade,” Danley wrote in the memo.

“Although the changes to HRD are resulting in immediate improvements, one should also expect that they will also be accompanied by a certain degree of apprehension and resistance.”

Danley, who started at the county in 1982 as an HR intern, has spent most of his 30-year career in that field, either as a department director or an HR official.

Taking over HR at this moment is tough, he said, but he foresees a bright future.

“It’s just a massive challenge,” Danley said. “But if I have a love for human resources, I’ve seen what good is and I know what that is. I’ve got a sense of where we need to be, and I get a chance to make it right and rebuild a structure that can give us our reputation back.”

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

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