Do Questions Centralization of County Human Resources

One of the key reforms following the Carlos Bustamante sex abuse scandal, the shifting of county human resources authority to a central HR office, is facing scrutiny from Supervisor Andrew Do, who has called for an audit of the effort.

In July 2012, prosecutors arrested Bustamante and accused him of systematically targeting vulnerable women working for him at the county Public Works department, stalking them and then sexually assaulting them. He has pled not guilty and is set for a jury trial starting Sept. 25

In the aftermath of the allegations, a county grand jury and others determined that the county’s decentralized HR system gave department heads too much authority over investigations into potential misconduct by officials.

The decentralization had been a money-saving move in the wake of the 1994 bankruptcy.

In response to the heavy criticism, county leaders re-centralized the department, drawing praise from a grand jury.

At a county supervisors workshop last week, Do made it clear that he wants an audit, saying it’s time to “take a close look” at whether the centralization effort has succeeded. Supervisors are expected to debate the issue at an upcoming meeting.

“Right now I’m working in the dark about how effective this effort is,” said Do, adding that the premise of centralizing HR was saving money.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson pushed back, defending the centralization as prudent and disputing Do’s characterization of its premise.

“It was very obvious that four and five years ago there were people in HR, starting at the very top, that had HR [managers] in place that didn’t know…that you couldn’t assign an HR manager to investigate their own boss.  Now if you take a class in HR [that] would be pretty elementary,” Nelson said.

“The reason it happened is there was no central nerve system for checks and balances,” Nelson said.  “Some standardization is mandatory.  We got so far afield, it was a walking liability.”

Do responded to Nelson by saying that while he supports having a universal human resources policy with a central office that can audit departments, he takes issue with a central HR office running recruitments for county jobs.

Supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer suggested that Do meet with directors of the county’s internal audit and performance audit offices about adding the audit to their work plans. Supervisors would then discuss whether to move forward at an upcoming meeting.

The largest union for county employees, meanwhile, says the centralization is key to ensuring policies are followed across the county.

“Under a decentralized environment, there’s kind of no control over what’s going on…we saw the consequences of that when Carlos Bustamante was able to sexually assault county employees,” said Jennifer Muir, assistant general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.

Bustamante’s subordinate, she noted, “was charged with investigating whether he had done anything wrong.”

Do’s actions come amid frustration he’s had recently with the county’s HR director, Steve Danley, who in January rejected his request to put his new chief of staff, Brian Probolsky, in a salary range reserved for employees with “outstanding performance.”

Probolsky was also sanctioned by Danley’s department for improperly documenting time off for his elected duties as a water district board member and for making political threats of retribution.

Last month during a regular meeting of the supervisors, Do spent several minutes publicly interrogating Danley over his position on Danley’s salary, among other issues.

“When I first took office and I put in the salary request for my staff, do you remember that you denied – rejected – my request?” Do asked on Tuesday.

Danley responded that the request was for “a salary rate that was above what the [personnel and salary resolution] allowed.”

Do probed further, telling Danley to point to the specific language in the resolution that requires supervisors to adhere to its salary rules. To “refresh” Danley’s memory, Do pointed to a section that say supervisors can pay political aides up to the “maximum rate of the applicable range.”

Danley, meanwhile, responded that the county’s practice is to set that top level as the “maximum advertised rate,” which in the case of political aides is about $54 per hour, less than the $60 an hour Do was seeking.

The intensity of the exchange was such that it prompted Supervisor Michelle Steel to remark that it was “like court.”

You can contact Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.