El Dorado County ousts chief administrative officer

Residents of El Dorado County listen to candidates during a debate for the vacant supervisor seat to replace ousted El Dorado County Supervisor Ray Nutting on Wednesday, July 23, 2014 at Cielo Winery, Shingle Springs.
Residents of El Dorado County listen to candidates during a debate for the vacant supervisor seat to replace ousted El Dorado County Supervisor Ray Nutting on Wednesday, July 23, 2014 at Cielo Winery, Shingle Springs. jvillegas@sacbee.com

El Dorado County’s chief administrative officer, once hailed by supervisors for trying to change a toxic workplace culture, has been forced from her job and will be paid nine months’ salary while the county searches for a replacement.

Terri Daly, the CAO for five years, was a key backer of a $250,000 program that hired outside trainers to improve the county’s working environment after an independent “climate assessment” survey of more than 1,200 employees reported low morale and a perceived culture of harassment, favoritism or retaliation.

But on Nov. 4, supervisors voted 3-2 in private session for Daly’s removal. Daly resigned after reaching an agreement with the county that will pay her nine months of her annual salary of $204,692.

Daly had publicly blasted a “whack-a-mole culture” in county government, claiming that certain managers and elected officers were “thriving in a bullying culture.” Daly publicly stood up for one of her subordinates, administrative analyst Mike Applegarth, who spoke at a Board of Supervisors meeting last spring about managers and employees feeling intimidated by the county’s auditor-controller, Joe Harn, and “literally crying” over the stressful work environment.

“I will personally protect anyone who comes forward from retaliation,” Daly said at that meeting.

Applegarth has since moved on to a public sector job in Utah, and the county’s assistant administrative officer, Kim Kerr, submitted her resignation after Daly was shown the door.

In an interview Sunday, Daly said she realized by September “that I had lost the confidence of the board.” But she also suggested that Harn had pushed for her removal in irritation over the workplace survey and suggestions of bullying.

“The big picture is, yes, I took on the bullying culture,” Daly said, adding, “Three people spoke out about the bullying culture and, lo and behold, we were all gone. The bully got re-elected and my assessment is that the cultural assessment” of the county’s working environment “will be swept under the rug.”

Harn said Sunday that he played no role in board members’ vote to oust Daly and “didn’t push for her removal.”

But he said he had criticized the administrator’s office for overspending that he charged bloated the county workforce, cut into budget reserves and threatened to leave the county with a deficit of as much as $24 million next year. “I urge your board to take immediate action...to prevent the need to make draconian budget cuts next summer,” he wrote supervisors on Oct. 28.

On Oct. 21, Harn also sent a letter to the board, assailing the chief administrative officer for failing to make timely payments to the consulting firm that was working on the county’s workplace assessment.

Harn earlier pointed out that the workplace survey showed he had 92 percent support from employees in the auditor-controller’s office. He blasted the effort as a waste of resources and dismissed criticism of workplace bullying as “political theater” fanned by his unsuccessful election challenger, Mike Owen, and angry supporters of former Supervisor Ray Nutting.

The auditor-controller had alerted the District Attorney’s Office to discrepancies in paperwork for state income Nutting received for brush clearing on his family’s Somerset ranch.

Nutting was acquitted earlier this year on felony counts related to failing to properly declare state income, but was convicted of misdemeanors – and forced from office – for improperly raising bail money for two county employees and a contractor doing business with the county.

He was replaced on the board by Shiva Frentzen, the winner of a Sept. 9 special election to fill the vacant seat. According to multiple sources, Frentzen joined board members Brian Veerkamp and Ron Mikulaco in voting for Daly’s departure.

The CAO’s resignation was announced at the Nov. 4 meeting by board chairwoman Norma Santiago, who thanked Daly for her service and called her “a loyal champion for all employees of El Dorado County.”

Supervisor Ron Briggs then interjected to say, “I did not support Terri’s resignation. I think that she was rudely dismissed from this county.”

Last June, the Board of Supervisors had issued a public letter of confidence in Daly. The board praised the CAO for producing “a responsible balanced budget” for four straight years and for following supervisors’ direction in working toward “a cultural transformation” to increase “collaboration” and “effective problem-solving” in the county workplace.

In an email to county employees announcing her resignation, Daly wrote that she was leaving the county “by mutual decision.” She added: “I feel that the culture of the county is no longer conducive to any further positive change under my watch.”

She applauded employees who “do amazing things each and every day.” Then she closed with a quote from an ancient Greek playwright, Sophocles: “It is better to fail with honor than win with deceit.”

Pamela Knorr, the county’s human resources director, has been appointed as interim chief administrative officer.

Frentzen, who said she couldn’t comment on the private session vote or related deliberations, said the county hopes to hire a replacement for Daly within six months.

Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.