A new grand jury report, blasting a “troublesome” climate and “thread of dysfunction running through El Dorado County government,” criticizes the county’s auditor-controller and calls for eliminating four elective offices.
The 2013-14 grand jury report, titled “The El Dorado County Charter: A Prescription For Dysfunction,” said the county should eliminate the offices of auditor-controller, treasurer-tax collector, county surveyor and recorder-clerk.
The report argued that “the proliferation of elected officials” creates an atmosphere of political obstruction that “compromises the performance” of the Board of Supervisors and county administration, resulting in “loss of employee morale.”
In particular, the document assailed the county’s strong-willed auditor-controller, Joe Harn, who was recently elected to his sixth term. The report characterized Harn as someone who has “deliberately obstructed board initiatives in order to cast himself as the white knight crusading against the failures of others.”
The grand jury, empowered as a local governmental review panel, said it didn’t specifically investigate Harn’s performance. Yet it cited unspecified county employee complaints that the auditor-controller “refuses to engage in constructive problem solving” and that he is “defamatory, disrespectful and disparaging” toward certain employees and officials.
In an interview, Harn suggested the grand jury report reflected some hard feelings in the county over his strict fiscal stewardship. Harn, who turned back an election challenge by accountant and winery owner Mike Owen by a vote of 55 percent to 45 percent on June 3, had campaigned on a record of attacking spending and moving El Dorado County from a negative cash balance to a $54 million surplus during his time in office.
He characterized the grand jury report as a backlash over his obstinacy in fighting a Board of Supervisors effort two years ago to raise the pay of a high-ranking county administrator and opposing a move to appoint an information-technology director without a public recruitment to fill the position.
“I have obstructed the board from taking certain illegal acts, and the county’s in great financial position because when they propose spending money on silly stuff I point it out,” Harn said. “If that makes me an obstructionist, I plead guilty.”
The report did not specify whether the county should maintain the four positions as appointments but said the chief administrative officer should have the power to hire all county employees not elected.
The grand jury report comes amid a politically charged time as El Dorado County is due to hold a special election Sept. 9 to fill the seat of former Supervisor Ray Nutting.
Nutting, who was acquitted of felony charges of political malfeasance for failing to properly declare state income for brush clearing on his family ranch, was convicted of six misdemeanors for improperly raising bail from two county employees and a construction contractor doing business in the county. Judge Timothy S. Buckley ruled that Nutting’s action amounted to official misconduct that required his removal from office under state law.
Many of Nutting’s supporters had assailed Harn over his plight: It was the auditor-controller who alerted the district attorney to alleged paperwork discrepancies, triggering Nutting’s prosecution on charges alleging that he shielded state grant income on campaign disclosure forms.
Meanwhile, county government has been consumed by turmoil over workplace issues in general since an independent “climate assessment” survey of more than 1,200 county employees reported low morale and a perceived culture of harassment, favoritism or retaliation. Last month, supervisors voted to spend $250,000 to bring in outside trainers to improve the county’s working environment.
Besides taking issue with the auditor-controller, the grand jury report assailed unspecified “individual members” of the Board of Supervisors for contributing to a dysfunctional work environment by personally meddling in “the day to day administration of county functions,” causing “confusion and poor morale among employees.”
Board chairwoman Norma Santiago said the grand jury report reflects concerns that the county is already taking steps to resolve through an unfolding “Workplace Action Plan.”
“We’re on our way. We’ve already been told of some serious issues,” Santiago said. “Our employees have made us aware of that.”
She said the effort to improve morale is focusing on drafting “processes and procedures” to improve the county’s working environment – not on “personalities and politics.”
Santiago also said a county charter review committee is studying whether the county should maintain its current elected positions or convert some to county administrative jobs. Such a change would have to be approved by voters and is unlikely to affect current officeholders’ terms, she said.
Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.