California Forum

May 25, 2014

Editorial: Historic Hangtown due for political culture change

There are good reasons to believe that the “culture of fear and retaliation” in El Dorado County government might start changing soon.

El Dorado County desperately needs climate change – political climate, that is. The county in historic Gold Country stretches from the tony estates of El Dorado Hills to the vacation resorts of South Lake Tahoe, but its government is still stuck firmly in Hangtown.

That’s the old handle of Placerville, county seat of El Dorado. There’s a historical marker noting the old hanging tree just down Main Street from the county courthouse.

The county’s spirit is more than physically rooted here. The rough-and-tumble mentality of the county’s beginning remains. It’s a place where an “old boys’ network” is said to still run things. Where voters still elect a surveyor, a relic from the mad Gold Rush era. Where loyalty and history mean more than professionalism, and political feuds can end up in court.

This is especially evident in county government, where even one of the top officials – Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Norma Santiago – characterized the atmosphere as “a culture of fear and retaliation.”

There is reason to believe that things might start changing soon – or rather, three reasons.

The first has to do with the efforts of Santiago, who represents the district that includes South Lake Tahoe, to dispel the toxic atmosphere pervasive in county government. She and Chief Administrative Officer Terri Daly met with The Bee’s editorial board last week to explain.

Earlier this year the county hired a consultant to survey its 1,900 employees and report back. The findings were a confirmation of what people had been saying in private: that county workers are afraid to speak up for fear of retribution and that favoritism, nepotism and bullying are rampant.

Here’s what one 23-year county worker had to say: “Most of us feel hopeless and come to work out of obligation instead of wanting to.”

The assessment prompted some investigations, but, more importantly, it was the basis for adopting a new action plan that will examine and update county policies and procedures with the intent of quashing the bully culture. The Board of Supervisors is to be commended for unanimously adopting the plan on May 13.

It does some important if basic things, such as setting up a cogent process for complaints with the help of an independent “special master.” It ought to help the county retain its current Human Resources Director Pamela Knorr, who was hired late last year after the county had gone through 11 directors in about a decade.

The June 3 primary election may also foster county culture change, as it will bring in new blood. Santiago is termed out, and The Bee has endorsed Angela Swanson to replace her. For the open seat in District 4, The Bee recommends Howard Penn. Both are professional and likely to help the county government move forward. Other county races are also on the ballot, such as district attorney and auditor/controller; the outcomes there too could factor into the county’s future.

The final piece is the resolution in the politically charged trial of Supervisor Ray Nutting, which roiled the county’s political establishment this spring. After a trial that lasted about three weeks, Nutting was acquitted May 14 of three felony malfeasance charges for failing to report income and conflicts of interest, but found guilty of six misdemeanor charges for government code violations committed trying to secure bail money during his frantic morning before he turned himself in on the felony charges. Still, his fellow supervisors aren’t sure if Nutting should continue to serve. They left it up to a judge’s decision, which is expected to come in the first week of June.

Santiago says she sees the next supervisors meeting on June 10 as “Renaissance Day for El Dorado County,” because the election will be over, the ruling on Nutting will be in, and the workplace policy will be in place.

We hope she’s right, but we do think more needs to be done to establish a firmly rooted 21st-century professionalism in that county’s government. One suggestion would be to look at reforming the county charter to change some of the seven elected county department heads – notably the surveyor and recorder-clerk – to appointed positions.

The winds of change seem to be blowing in El Dorado County. It’s up to county leaders to seize the opportunity and for some of them to sail into the sunset.

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