Fresno County supervisors are continuing to learn about probation Chief Rick Chavez’s forced departure last week, and are considering strategies to change the way that position is overseen.
But the reason for removing Chavez remains under wraps.
Fresno County’s charter – the laws that govern how the county operates – could be changed to remove the ability of judges to appoint and remove the probation chief. The charter must be changed by voters, and the last time an item was repealed from the charter was 1980.
Chavez, 59, a 32-year county employee, was appointed by the presiding judge as probation chief in 2013. Chavez was affirmed in the post by supervisors, and is a county employee.
Word of Chavez’s discipline was sent in an email to county officials on Thursday. The email from Fresno County Superior Court Judge Kimberly Gaab named Michael Elliott as the interim probation chief.
Supervisors were angered by Chavez’s removal because he also reports to county administrators and is paid by Fresno County. The judges are under state jurisdiction.
“Most probation officers in the state are appointed by the Superior Court, although they are county employees and run a county department,” Fresno County Counsel Dan Cederborg said. “This is the case in Fresno County … this is a long-standing and statutory arrangement, which admittedly can create confusion in the public minds as to the chain of command.”
Supervisor Henry R. Perea said supervisors set the salary for the probation chief under state law.
The charter dates back to when the courts were under county jurisdiction nearly a decade ago.
Perea said he is not opposed to having the probation chief position under state jurisdiction, but that the state should be responsible for the salary and oversight, too.
They could put someone in on an interim or permanent basis and we could set the salary at $1.
Henry R. Perea, Fresno County supervisor
Until supervisors are satisfied by the action taken by the courts, they could control salary.
“They could put someone in on an interim or permanent basis,” Perea said, “and we could set the salary at $1.”
Perea said the county has been assured that an investigation about Chavez will begin soon.
“I haven’t heard that he’s done anything egregious,” Perea said. “I think the courts are not appreciating the long-standing relationship that we’ve enjoyed.”
Through a court spokeswoman, Gaab said, “It is a personnel matter. It is confidential. The court has no comment.”
Chavez couldn’t be reached Monday.
Perea said the court’s action could get the county sued even though county officials had nothing to do with Chavez’s situation.
Supervisor Andreas Borgeas, who twice brought ballot initiatives forward with the Fresno City Council that were supported by voters in 2010 and 2012, said he would consider a “comprehensive charter review committee for the county” that would seek voter approval for changes.
Earlier this year, supervisors said they would consider a charter change for naming the county’s public works and planning director. Under the charter, the director must be a registered civil engineer and surveyor. The two professions have diverged over the years and few people have both certifications. That charter amendment was approved in 1966.
“A charter is not an immovable institution, but rather a living document requiring a high threshold for change,” he said. “One of our challenges is evolving with the times.”
In Chavez’s case, he said, there should have been consultation between the court and the county because Chavez is a county employee.
The Probation Department has more than 600 employees and a $75 million budget. The position pays $139,552 annually, according to the Fresno County budget for 2015-16.