Fresno supervisors might ask for charter changes in November election

Rick Chavez, probation chief, has been on paid administrative leave since April.
Rick Chavez, probation chief, has been on paid administrative leave since April. Fresno Bee file

Fresno County supervisors will begin discussions Tuesday about asking voters to put the fate of the county’s probation chief in their hands – and maybe some other charter changes.

In April, Rick Chavez, the county’s probation chief, was placed on administrative leave with pay by the Fresno County Superior Court’s presiding judge, Kimberly Gaab. Under state law, the judges have supervision over the probation chief post.

But the county pays Chavez’s salary. The Superior Court system was taken over by the state about seven years ago, and supervisors and county staff say they haven’t been told why Chavez was placed on leave.

Supervisors have no power over the probation chief’s post unless they change their charter, essentially the county’s constitution, to reflect the county’s supervision.

Under proposed November ballot language, the supervisors’ charter revision would remove oversight from the judges and leave supervision to the county administrative officer with approval of the supervisors or solely at the supervisors’ discretion.

Chavez’s removal is still under investigation, said Joseph Wiley, the Alameda-based lawyer for Fresno County Superior Court. “It is a personnel investigation, and it’s confidential. The allegations are serious, and it’s a thoughtful, careful investigation.”

Wiley said there is no time frame for the investigation’s conclusion.

Chavez, 59, is a 32-year county employee. He was appointed by the presiding judge as probation chief in 2013 and affirmed in the post by supervisors.

Fresno lawyer Barry Bennett, Chavez’s lawyer, said his client has no idea why he was placed on leave. “He feels cut off from all these people he’s worked with and has no information as to what this is all about,” Bennett said.

Other issues under consideration for the November charter measure include moving the public administrator’s office and possibly coroner’s office and reducing the types of certifications required for the county’s public works and planning director.

The coroner and public administrator offices were moved to the Sheriff’s Office and District Attorney’s Office, respectively, in 2015.

Board Chairman Buddy Mendes said he thinks the Sheriff’s Office oversight of the coroner hasn’t been a problem, but the public administrator’s office is under a cloud because of suspicion of criminal activity by three of its former employees. The District Attorney’s Office announced last year that public administrator employees had stolen from the deceased.

Keeping the public administrator under the District Attorney’s Office creates a potential conflict of interest if the district attorney has to prosecute members of the department. Last year’s case is under investigation by the state Attorney General’s Office.

The public works and planning director is required to have certification as a surveyor and as a licensed engineer.

Mendes said requiring both certifications is outdated and reduces the county’s ability to attract qualified applicants.

Fresno County’s elections officials say that a measure would cost $30,000 for the November ballot. It is possible, Supervisor Andreas Borgeas said, that the county could consider more than one measure.

Supervisors must decide by early August whether they will place any charter amendment on the ballot.

Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin

Fresno County Board of Supervisors

Meeting begins 9 a.m. Tuesday

Hall of Records, Room 301, 2281 Tulare Street