Questions continue to swirl around the firings this week of two county Social Service Agency employees at a service center in Westminster.
County officials have confirmed the dismissals, but will not comment further.
Meanwhile, sources close to the situation say the employees, who were classified as "extra help workers," were fired because they were campaigning for Republican Andrew Do, who is among five candidates running in a special Jan. 27 election to fill the First District supervisor seat vacated by Janet Nguyen when she was elected to the state Senate last November.
Do, who Nguyen installed as her chief of staff near the end of her tenure as supervisor, publicly disputed this claim Thursday, saying on Vietnamese radio that the employees were given no explanation as to why they were let go.
“There are two staff that we have employed for several years, one from the time we established the center until now, who have been dismissed. They did not give a single reason, they didn’t say that the budget ran out, or that there’s no work so they had to leave, but they said, ‘we don’t need your services anymore,” and dismissed them,” Do said.
Do's comments Thursday followed claims by he and Nguyen Wednesday that county officials are planning to close the Westminster service center, which serves a largely low-income Vietnamese population. The center was first opened in 2007 at the behest of Nguyen.
Neither Do nor Nguyen have returned calls by Voice of OC seeking comment.
County officials have publicly denied there are any plans to close the center, and though he would not say specifically why the employees were fired, County Supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer said the county had good reason.
“The allegations about the conduct of these employees was serious and it had been corroborated and looked into by SSA. This was not something that occurred in order to come up with a rationale to close the facility,” Spitzer said.
Yet Spitzer did acknowledge there may be problems with how the dismissals were carried out.
“I am not pleased with how SSA handled the termination and the procedure they followed,” Spitzer said.
Apart from the terminations, questions are also being raised regarding how the two workers, which never had normal employee status, were employed for so long. One was hired in 2008 and another in 2011.
The county's top union leader said he is concerned with how the extra-help employees were treated.
"It's a routine, abusive-employer strategy not to tell employees who it believes are at-will any reason for the dismissal,” said Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association. “We have been engaged in a long bitter struggle with the County regarding its abuse of extra help positions."
The county’s memorandum of understanding, which governs how workers are classified states: “an extra help employee serves at the pleasure of the County in an extra help position and may be removed from an extra help position at any time with or without notice or cause and without a hearing.”
While county officials are not releasing the names of the fired workers, Voice of OC has confirmed their employment as extra help workers went far beyond what is authorized by county policies.
According to the MOU, extra help positions are “intended to be occupied on less than a year-round basis” and meant to cover seasonal or emergency peak workloads.
The MOU notes that “ordinarily, a full-time extra help position will not be authorized for a period exceeding six (6) months. In unusual circumstances, and at the discretion of the County Executive Officer and the Chief Human Resources Officer, a full-time extra help position may be authorized for a period longer than six (6) months, provided such period shall not exceed one (1) year.”
In this case, one worker went in that category for seven years and another for four years.
Supervisor Shawn Nelson acknowledged the policy limitations on extra-help workers and said he’s curious why the county Auditor-Controller would have kept authorizing payments.
According to Spitzer, Nguyen told him that the continued use of extra help workers was authorized.
“She told me it had been signed off by CEO,” Spitzer said.
Nonetheless, Spitzer said the long-term use of extra help workers didn’t make sense. “That is absolutely not the way that class was intended to be utilized,” Spitzer said. “There will be an end to that.”
Spitzer and Nelson on Thursday also addressed Nguyen’s radio accusations that they and other top officials are conspiring to close the center.
“She considered [the center] her community baby. She created it, she fought for it,” Spitzer said. “She thinks there’s a direct relation between these employees’ termination and wanting to shut down the facility [and] she believes those people who were terminated are critical for the success of that facility.”
Indeed, Nguyen was adamant on the radio Wednesday that without Do the Westminster center would be shuttered.
“Right now on the Board of Supervisors, because we don’t have a supervisor to stand among the other supervisors, we’ll lose all the work we’ve done for seven years," Nguyen said Tuesday on VNCR Radio on 106.3 FM.
“If there’s a time when we have an emergency in our community, this is it,” Nguyen said, speaking a mix of English and Vietnamese. “This was an office that helped a lot of people — our aunts and uncles, our sisters…don’t let us lose seven years of work.”
Yet both Spitzer and Nelson – who was chairman of the board for the past two years – underscored Thursday that there have never been any discussions about terminating the center, despite the fact that it was established on a tight, 3-2 vote back in 2007.
Nelson scoffed at Nguyen’s radio comments saying any crisis over the center is pure political fabrication, likely the result of this month’s special election to fill Nguyen’s seat on the board of supervisors.
“I have to assume she believes it’s politically beneficial to create that crisis,” Nelson said. “Create a paper tiger and then slay it.”
He added: “Not everybody thinks that’s the way you have to do things in politics."