Fresno County supervisors are worried about Probation Department morale because animosity between employee factions has grown in the two months since Chief Rick Chavez was placed on administrative leave by Fresno County Superior Court judges.
After voting to put a charter amendment on November’s ballot seeking county jurisdiction over the probation chief’s position, supervisors questioned county administrators during Tuesday’s board meeting about how the county can move forward and ensure that workers remain secure in their jobs.
The board Tuesday voted to hire a law firm with government expertise to assist employees and ensure that the county is meeting its responsibilities for the department. No court officials spoke Tuesday.
The investigation has lasted far longer than county officials initially were told.
County Administrative Officer Jean Rousseau told supervisors Tuesday that he was informed that the investigation would initially take five to 10 days. County officials advised employees to cooperate in the investigation, but as the investigation wore on over the past two months, supervisors became concerned about the effects on the department.
Last week, county officials told employees they no longer had to participate in interviews.
“The business of the department is not being dealt with appropriately and timely due to the investigation,” Rousseau said. “It’s created a rift within the department and there are different camps and that’s not good for overall morale and performance.”
The longer this investigation takes, the more damage it does to the department.
Buddy Mendes, Fresno County Board of Supervisors chairman
Board Chairman Buddy Mendes said the Superior Court has refused to meet with supervisors or county officials, who weren’t aware of the investigative issues until Friday.
“The investigation and the length of time it has taken has caused serious personnel and labor problems, morale and operations in the Probation Department have suffered greatly,” he said. “The longer this investigation takes, the more damage it does to the department.”
Tuesday’s discussion was an opportunity for supervisors to ask questions about the county’s legal standing and ensure probation department employees that their jobs would be safe.
“It was necessary for the board to make a public statement to communicate that they are concerned and they are on top of their responsibilities for the department and ensure the employees of the same thing,” Fresno County Counsel Dan Cederborg said.
On Friday, Chavez and his lawyer were sent a letter with allegations from the Superior Court’s investigator, Masa Shiohira with the law firm of Wiley, Price & Radulovich. The letter included a single-page addendum signed by Presiding Judge Kimberly Gaab that ordered Chavez to participate in an investigation interview.
Joe Wiley, the lawyer representing Fresno County Superior Court, said the allegations against Chavez “are extremely serious and related to the competence of the chief to stay in his position.”
Wiley said it’s unclear when the investigation will be over. It will require a vote by Superior Court judges to decide Chavez’s fate, he said.
Among the issues in the investigation was the slow hiring of juvenile corrections officers, changes made to department reports, profanity allegedly used by Chavez against his superiors and law enforcement partners and an impression that he wanted to disengage from the department’s day-to-day operations.
The investigation also examined three personnel issues that Chavez’s lawyer, Barry Bennett, said were all dealt with under Chavez’s predecessor, Linda Penner.
There’s a big majority of us who just want to do our jobs and are caught up in the middle of this.
Elizabeth Arredondo, Probation Department employee
Ray Martinez, one of those named in the investigation, said his ownership of a liquor license was dealt with years ago. A 27-year Probation Department employee, he told supervisors on Tuesday that he was upset that he is a focus of the investigation.
“I can legally obtain a liquor license, which I have done,” Martinez said. “I own a business, and the business is a quite successful business.”
He added: “What this whole investigation was is a witch hunt.”
Elizabeth Arredondo, a 15-year employee with the Probation Department, said that employees who aren’t in a faction are targeted as if they are part of one.
“There’s a big majority of us who just want to do our jobs and are caught up in the middle of this,” she said.
Cristina Young, assistant to the probation chief, said she worked directly with Chavez. “This must really be tearing him apart to see what’s going on in the department.”
Bennett said Tuesday that he and Chavez will meet with the investigator, but Bennett wanted time to debunk the allegations. Chavez was supposed to start meeting with the investigator this week, Bennett said.
In other action Tuesday, supervisors approved the county’s $2.7 billion budget. The budget was discussed in hearings last week.
Supervisors also supported placing a second county charter measure on the November ballot. It will ask voters to change requirements for the public works and planning director, requiring that the director be registered as a civil engineer but not additionally as a surveyor, which is currently the case.
The same measure also seeks to move the public administrator’s department out of the District Attorney’s Office. Under existing rules, the public administrator has to be part of an elected office. If approved, the charter measure will allow the office to be moved to another county office, either elected or appointed.
The other items under the second ballot measure would allow the county to give preference to local businesses when bidding for goods and services and would delete the long-defunct constable’s office position.