Fresno County Superior Court judges sent a confidential memo last week to fellow judges outlining more reasons for placing county Probation Chief Rick Chavez on paid administrative leave nearly five months ago.
Those reasons were added to allegations issued in June and letters that surfaced in August and suggest that Chavez was not communicating with or following orders from the presiding judges, who wanted more probation officers and money spent on court programs, such as the county’s Drug Court.
In the confidential memo obtained by The Bee, Judge Jonathan Conklin, presiding judge in 2014 and 2015, and current Presiding Judge Kimberly Gaab outlined conversations they had with Chavez and his inability to respond to them in a timely way.
Their concerns, however, never were shared with county officials. County administrative officers during the period cited by Conklin and Gaab, beginning in 2014, say they never were advised of problems with Chavez.
Conklin said Chavez, named probation chief in 2013, went from potentially outstanding to adequate to inadequate in his time as presiding judge in 2014 and 2015.
The five-page, single-spaced memo said Chavez communicated ineffectively. Conklin said he practiced an “open-door policy” with Chavez and emphasized the importance of keeping him informed of any problems in meeting the court’s requirements, including budget constraints.
In their early discussions, Conklin said his intention was not to supervise day-to-day operations of the probation department.
Mr. Chavez demonstrated his failure to communicate with the court.
Judges Kimberly Gaab and Jonathan Conklin’s confidential memo to Fresno County Superior Court judges
An investigation later carried out by a Bay Area law firm on behalf of the judges came about, in part, because of Conklin and Gaab’s problems with Chavez and allegations in an anonymous letter in March. Because of the letter and their prior issues with Chavez, the judges concluded that there may be a basis for some of the letter’s allegations and that an investigation was warranted, the memo said.
A major focus of the judges’ memo was Chavez’s inability to create a pretrial release program modeled after one used in the federal courts. The memo said Conklin and Chavez discussed early in 2014 “how detrimental the overcrowding releases had become and how beneficial it would be for probation to implement a pretrial release program to assist those being released from custody.”
After discussions throughout 2014 and into 2015, the pretrial release program didn’t start until just before June 2015. Conklin said he documented his difficulties with Chavez in 2014 and in a written evaluation in February 2015.
In 2014 and 2015, the memo said, Conklin suggested that Chavez’s inability to launch the pretrial program “would be a failure to perform a key aspect of his job.”
If he failed to start the program by June 2015, the memo said, “sufficient grounds would be in place to support good cause to recommend removal of Mr. Chavez to the judges.”
Another situation arose over the number of probation officers available in the county’s Drug Court, the memo said. Judge Hilary Chittick told Conklin she was frustrated by “the lack of substantive participation by Mr. Chavez and the probation department.”
“Once again, Mr. Chavez demonstrated his failure to communicate with the court and to successfully and timely implement a program that was a priority for the court,” the memo said.
Conklin also said difficulties recruiting and hiring juvenile corrections officers was another problem Chavez failed to inform him about and it was affecting morale. He said Chavez would wait for him to learn about an issue instead of telling him upfront.
Meanwhile, after Gaab took over as presiding judge this year, she was informed by court administrator Sheran Morton that the county should have a 1-to-50 ratio of probation officers to offenders, but that the county’s ratio between 2014 and 2015 was as high as 1-to-80.
Why not earlier?
Many issues mentioned in the confidential memo weren’t addressed in allegations justifying the investigation of Chavez earlier this year.
Chavez’s lawyer, Barry Bennett, said he will have to respond to the new allegations, which he said should have been raised in the initial investigation.
Bennett said Chavez had competing issues in the juvenile justice center and in the courts and not enough money to fund programs. He said one program would slide to benefit another.
The judges told him “you’ll have to figure out how to staff it and fund it,” Bennett said, “and that’s what he tried to do.”
Bennett said the new allegations about communication failures are unexpected.
“They didn’t complain to anybody that Mr. Chavez was uncommunicative or whatever it is they’re claiming now,” Bennett said. “They didn’t complain to people when they should have … and if this was so important, why wasn’t it in the original allegations?”
Current county administrative officer Jean Rousseau and retired CAO John Navarrette both say they never were advised by judges that there were any issues with Chavez. The probation chief is hired and fired by judges in consultation with the county, but the department’s oversight and finances are controlled by the county.
You’ll have to figure out how to staff it and fund it and that’s what he tried to do.
Barry Bennett, Rick Chavez’s lawyer on judges’ funding recommendation
Rousseau said he met with Conklin, Gaab, Judge Alan Simpson and the court’s administrator, Morton, at the end of February. He said the meeting was both an introduction and discussion of mutual issues that involved Fresno County Superior Court and the county.
“They never said word one about any issues with Rick Chavez,” he said.
Chavez serves two bosses – the judges and the county administrative officer – but the county pays his $139,020 annual salary.
A few weeks after Rousseau met with the judges, court officials received the anonymous letter in March and Rosalinda Acosta was promoted to Chavez’s second-in-command over Michael Elliott, who is now interim probation chief. In mid-April, Chavez was placed on administrative leave.
Fresno County Counsel Dan Cederborg said he read the judge’s confidential memo but would comment only through Fresno County spokesman Jaime Sandoval.
The “court never shared any of its concerns with the county,” Cederborg said through Sandoval.
“The court has not communicated to the county anything about any additional charges regarding the chief probation officer. The county would have serious concerns given the conduct of the investigation into the chief probation officer so far, that any existing issues the court may have had were not raised earlier in this process.”
Former CAO speaks out
Navarrette, who retired last October, said he also never spoke with judges in 2014 and 2015 about any problems with Chavez.
The inability to hire juvenile corrections officers, which Chavez was criticized for, was a function of the county budget and competitive recruiting and retention. In addition, the county had problems with applicants passing psychological tests and background checks, Navarrette said.
Chavez “met with me and Beth Bandy (retired personnel director), and he was always pushing for more recruitment and getting more (juvenile corrections officers),” he said.
The problem was that the county was cutting salaries from 2011 until last year, making it even more difficult to recruit. Other counties were offering better pay and benefits, and there were openings for higher-paying corrections positions in Fresno County Jail.
The county’s Drug Court also was difficult to fund because revenues were not showing significant signs of improvement.
The courts, he said, rely on county money to improve programs that are funded differently through the state.
“We had to balance the needs of probation, the sheriff, district attorney and other agencies,” Navarrette said. “The courts may have wanted improved programs but there was only so much money we could spread among these agencies.”
We had to balance the needs of probation, the sheriff, district attorney and other agencies.
John Navarrette, retired county administrative officer
Some of the issues cited in the allegations against Chavez in earlier documents filed by the judges were policies within Chavez’s discretion. Navarrette cited Chavez’s approval of a civilian attire dress code when officers weren’t required to be on street assignments and allowing officers to place guns in safes to secure them if they preferred it.
Chavez advised Navarette about the policy changes.
“He explained the reason he was implementing it and I was supportive,” Navarrette said. “Many times these officers wanted to be dressed as paramilitary. Why do you need a sidearm when you’re in an office?”
Probation officers are required to meet with probationers, who aren’t necessarily dangerous.
Navarrette said the relationship between the courts and Fresno County officials has soured since the state took over operations of the courts about a decade ago.
The Board of Supervisors responded bitterly after the Superior Court closed courthouses outside the city of Fresno in 2012 without notifying the supervisors. That action forced outlying residents to travel to Fresno for court dates.
Chavez’s situation is another reminder of that difficult relationship, Navarrette said.
The judges appear to lack progressive discipline in the process that resulted in Chavez being placed on leave, Navarrette said. Certainly, he said, notifying the county of their issues with Chavez would have been helpful.
“The county is writing the check,” Navarrette said. “So, if you’re going to discipline him, you need to notify the county.”