Board approves response to grand jury report critical of HR policies

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The Riverside County board of supervisors approved executive office and committee responses to a sharply critical civil grand jury report recently concerning Riverside County’s personnel policies, which the respondents affirmed were in compliance with labor law and county ordinances.

The grand jury in early July issued a 16-page report that focused on practices by the department of human resources and the office of county counsel, concluding that the latter was often “problematic” and intrusive, adding to HR’s alleged failure to ensure workplace equity and honesty.

Jurors specifically cited instances of “abusive management behavior,” “punitive disciplinary action,” “retaliatory behavior” and “abuse of power” in sections of their report.

“Our concern comes with the investigation of county counsel,” Supervisor Karen Spiegel said, who joined Supervisor Jeff Hewitt in forming an ad hoc committee to scrutinize the jury’s findings and answer them. “The jury did not meet with county counsel, and that alone is a grave concern. Our other concern is that there was no way for us to validate some of the accusations.”

In one case, the jury interviewed an attorney hired as a deputy county counsel who said she had been reprimanded in 2017 for uncovering that the Economic Development Agency was facing costly legal hurdles related to dealings with an outdoor advertising firm and a developer. The lawyer was reportedly pulled aside by a superior and told she had “no business” involving herself. She was fired within a couple of months, according to the report.

Employees who spoke to jurors further alleged that they had been assigned “freeway therapy” by managers and supervisors who didn’t like them, meaning they were transferred to satellite offices many miles from their previous work sites as a “known means of punishment.”

According to jurors, exit interviews and routine employee evaluations were not being conducted – to the detriment of the county workforce and taxpayers – and whistle blowing was being punished.

“The office of county counsel has, throughout this investigation, come to the forefront as being problematic in its relationship in regards to HR matters,” according to the grand jury’s report.

Jurors cited repeated instances dating back to the start of Chief Counsel Greg Priamos’ tenure in 2013 where the office of county counsel had been a hindrance.

One of the most exasperating examples spotlighted by the grand jury was the county attorney’s rule that “all contacts with the grand jury must go through the office of county counsel before their responding to an inquiry.”

“Measures like this have the impact of hampering the ability of the civil grand jury to legitimately investigate and inquire about even minute issues,” according to the report.

Jurors suggested that the county’s steep liability costs – $136.6 million between 2013 and 2017 – stemming from lawsuits were at least partly attributable to deficient HR practices influenced by the office of county counsel.

The jury made a series of recommendations rooted in county policies and labor law that aim to make government more accountable and transparent.

In their response to the jury, Hewitt and Spiegel wrote that “the office of Riverside County counsel and Greg Priamos provide ‘meaningful advice’ and offer ‘solutions’ to ensure that departments are performing in a legal and ethical way.”

Spiegel told her colleagues that she and Hewitt spoke with counsel staff and determined that Priamos has a “reputation for being fair but firm.”

The supervisors said employees who believe they have been treated unfairly can file grievances and seek redress through the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other agencies.

They said the county’s C-27 and C-35 policies were in place to protect against abusive management practices and that whistleblowers were shielded, to some degree, by California Labor Code section 1102.5.

The supervisors called the jurors’ disposition toward Priamos and his staff “reckless” and without merit.

“I don’t know if there is an ideal prescription for getting a policy right,” Hewitt said. “I don’t like attorneys or a whole lot of different things about them. But I think the jury overlooked some stuff, and this was our conclusion.”

The executive office’s own report said the jury seemed to confine its view to a “small number of disgruntled former employees” who did not represent the county workforce as a whole.

“Over the past five years, there have been several instances in which employees had below-standards performance or engaged in misconduct,” the executive office said. “In each instance, the office of county counsel consulted and worked collaboratively with the human resources department to ensure that all county and office policies and procedures, as well as applicable law, were followed.”

The agency declined to get into specifics concerning each former employee’s case, citing privacy concerns, but officials said that at no time did they seek reinstatement through appeals to federal and state arbiters.

The executive office said that acts of “harsh” or “unscrupulous” managerial practices highlighted by the jury could not be corroborated.

Officials acknowledged that performance evaluations have not been consistent, but improvements are ongoing, and they said there is a definite need by the department of human resources to seek input in the exit interview process.

The executive office dismissed the allegation that whistleblowers face automatic termination, and the agency said the office of county counsel is authorized to serve as the legal representative of employees asked to testify before the grand jury.