Fresno County supervisors told employees Tuesday that they no longer have to cooperate with the Superior Court in its investigation of Probation Chief Rick Chavez because the investigation is having a destructive effect on the department, the county’s lawyer said.
Chavez, a 32-year county employee, is under investigation by Fresno County Superior Court and its attorneys, but investigators will not disclose details of the investigation with the county, which pays Chavez’s salary. Chavez, probation chief since 2013, was placed on paid administrative leave two months ago.
County supervisors met in closed session Tuesday morning and voted to tell employees their jobs will be protected if they choose not to participate in the court’s investigation.
Employees were directed to cooperate at the outset of the investigation on April 20, but that directive was withdrawn on Tuesday.
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“If called for an interview or served with an appointment time, you may choose to attend or may decline to do so,” stated the letter that was issued Tuesday by County Administrative Officer Jean Rousseau and Paul Nerland, director of human resources. “You will not be subject to disciplinary action regardless of which action you choose to take.”
We are making sure our employees are treated fairly and there is no chance of intimidation or retaliation against employees on any side of this issue.
Dan Cederborg, Fresno County counsel
The board has invited Fresno County Superior Court judges or their lawyer to address the issue at next Tuesday’s supervisors meeting.
“We are not going to let our employees cooperate in the investigation,” County Counsel Dan Cederborg said Tuesday. “We are making sure our employees are treated fairly and there is no chance of intimidation or retaliation against employees on any side of this issue.”
Employees can decide to be interviewed, Cederborg said, but the county will ensure no employees are intimidated because of their choices.
Chavez was placed on administrative leave in mid-April. Michael Elliott was named interim probation chief.
Joseph Wiley, the Superior Court’s lawyer, said the court is continuing its investigation and will conclude it soon.
He said employees have been participating in the investigation, and “we hope they will continue to do so.”
Wiley said he has been communicating with Cederborg but hasn’t discussed the nature of the investigation.
Wiley said he and the judges will not talk to supervisors about the situation.
“All the court is doing is gathering facts on allegations regarding a confidential personnel matter,” Wiley said.
Barry Bennett, Chavez’s lawyer, said the Superior Court’s investigation has gone on far too long, an indication that there is no merit to the investigation.
“One of the reasons it’s been mishandled is that there is no substance to it,” he said. “Just because Joe Wiley said these are allegations of serious misconduct doesn’t mean there are.”
His feeling is if he had done something it should have come to light by now and he should have been confronted with it.
Barry Bennett, lawyer for Rick Chavez
Bennett said he and Chavez don’t know any details of the investigation, but he said Chavez is frustrated.
“His feeling is if he had done something it should have come to light by now and he should have been confronted with it,” Bennett said. “If he was investigating one of his employees, he wouldn’t do it this way.”
Board of Supervisors Chairman Buddy Mendes said the Probation Department needs to get past this issue. The employees, who are county workers, are being called in during work hours for interviews, he said.
“The employees have an important job and their workload is high, so to see them have to suffer in this dysfunction is very disheartening,” he said.
County supervisors oversee Chavez and pay his $139,020 annual salary. The department has 320 employees. The department’s budget for the coming year exceeds $31.5 million with all grants and revenues included.
The employees have an important job and their workload is high, so to see them have to suffer in this dysfunction is very disheartening.
Buddy Mendes, Fresno County supervisors’ board chairman
The judges, under state law, have the power to appoint and remove the probation chief.
Supervisors have no power over the probation chief’s post unless they change the charter – essentially the county’s constitution.
Supervisors are considering changing the charter to place the probation chief’s position under county jurisdiction. They want to put a charter amendment in front of voters in November.
The charter change would give the power to hire, direct and fire the probation chief either solely to the Board of Supervisors or to the county administrative officer with oversight by the supervisors.
“There is an overlapping set of jurisdictions,” Cederborg said. “In the best of circumstances, the organizations would have worked together, but for their own reasons, the court’s attorneys have chosen not to.”
The situation has convinced the board to consider the charter change.
“We’re in a near helpless situation showing that we definitely need to fix the charter,” Mendes said. “People are elected to do a job, and they’re powerless to do it.”