County department heads ripped the Board of Supervisors and the county’s budget officer last week over what they perceived as the county’s “take a pay cut or else” message.
In a sometimes heated exchange during the board’s meeting Tuesday, March 20, various county officers said they felt disrespected, intimidated and threatened by the process.
The county is facing another $1 million budget shortfall. The county’s largest union has already taken pay and benefit cuts.
Most department heads, both elected and appointed, said they were willing to take the same pay cuts as county workers.
Although pay cuts were adopted in the budget, they haven’t been implemented. That means the county hasn’t yet realized any savings.
Since county department heads aren’t union members, they have individual contracts that must be negotiated.
But the department heads said placing the contract amendments on the action agenda with just five days notice and 20 minutes for discussion was insulting.
The supervisors agreed to continue the discussion at the April 3 meeting — but not before several directors voiced their frustration for nearly 90 minutes.
The department heads said the contract-amendment process underscored a larger problem in the way the county has dealt with its employees.
Several department heads, and one supervisor, were critical of the county’s chief administrative officer, Jack Ingstad.
Earlier in the meeting, the county’s public health director, Mimi Hall, read an emotional resignation letter to the board. She cited an email from Ingstad to the management council as the “final straw” that led to her decision to quit.
Ingstad’s email stated in part, “If a department head declines the Amendment (for pay cuts), the Board will need to give notice of termination to the employee.”
Ingstad said he didn’t read the email, which was composed by county counsel Craig Settlemire, before forwarding it.
He said it wasn’t meant as a threat. He said it contained options for the department heads to discuss.
“I thought that the department heads should have some benefit of seeing what we were talking about and have a reaction to the contracts that were being proposed,” Ingstad said. “County counsel wanted me to review it and give him reaction to the contracts that he was proposing.
“I thought everyone should be on the team together,” Ingstad said. “We should all be involved in the discussion. And Craig (Settlemire) reminded me after I sent it out, that he asked me not to send it out.”
Supervisor Jon Kennedy said he wanted to make it clear that the supervisors didn’t direct the email.
“I’ll bet you there is an assumption made that the Board of Supervisors directed this,” Kennedy said to Ingstad.
Ingstad reminded the supervisors, “We started discussing this over 2-1/2 months ago, and started asking management council to give us some direction on how they would like to redo their contracts. We waited, and there was no feedback.”
“I’ll tell you why there was no feedback, because a lot of people are afraid to give you feedback. OK?” Kennedy told Ingstad.
“Well they shouldn’t be,” Ingstad responded.
“You are darn right they shouldn’t be,” Kennedy said. “But they are.”
Several department heads, most of them elected officials, offered sharp feedback at the meeting.
District Attorney David Hollister was the first to loudly criticize the process. He said changing an elected official’s contract in the middle of his term was illegal.
“Using an unlawful act as the lead salvo in a negotiation is not the way to do business with me. I don’t appreciate it,” Hollister said. “There is a reason that you don’t change certain elected officers’ salary or compensation in the middle of a term.”
As an example, the district attorney said that if he or the sheriff were ever faced with prosecuting a supervisor, they needed to have the autonomy to do their jobs without worrying about possible financial retaliation.
“We need to have the autonomy to carry out our duties without the fear that on the next board date there is going to be a resolution saying that our retirement contribution is now 100 percent,” Hollister told the board. “And you would then have the ability to do that.”
Hollister added that despite being one of the lowest-paid district attorneys in the state, he was willing to take the same pay and benefit concessions as his staff.
Sheriff Greg Hagwood, Assessor Chuck Leonhardt, Clerk-Recorder Kathy Williams, Auditor Shawn Montgomery and Chief Probation Officer Sharon Reinert also spoke to the board.
Hagwood said that after his department, which has 10 vacant positions, gave back $250,000 to the county’s general fund, he thought that he was “providing a solution.”
“I guess I was looking at things with a measure of simplicity that perhaps I shouldn’t have,” Hagwood said. “I thought there was a solution.”
Hagwood was also critical of the negotiation process that he said “is flawed.”
“I think there can be some gesture of negotiation that hasn’t existed,” Hagwood said. “It’s not what you are doing, it’s how you are doing it.”
Williams emphasized that she thinks appointed department heads are afraid of the CAO.
“I think you’ve got yourself into a situation where appointed department heads are afraid to talk to you, because they are afraid they’re going to lose their job,” Williams said to the supervisors. “And they are afraid they are going to lose their job because of a lot of the things the CAO will say to them.
“If you are going to act as a board, act as a board. The CAO works for you.”
Supervisor Sherrie Thrall took exception to Williams’ comments.
“How many department heads have we fired in the last 10 years for expressing themselves?” Thrall asked. “I’ve been here six years. And I’ve seen some come and go, but it was for cause, not because they gave us their opinion.
“I think that’s kind of an assumption of something that could happen. But it could happen to anybody. We (supervisors) could be recalled,” Thrall said. “I just don’t think there’s that level of threat.”
Ingstad said he’s in a tough position. And he does understand county employees’ frustration.
“In this time, when you take away stuff from everybody, and you are making horrible recommendations (because of budget deficits), nobody’s going to like the CAO,” he said. “I’m probably not as bad as people say I am. And I’m probably not as good as people say I am.
“All I do is try to take my direction from you (supervisors). And I hope you believe that I don’t do anything that I’m not directed to by three board members. Because I don’t really supervise day to day any department head.”
Supervisors take cuts
Before the department heads addressed the board, the county supervisors voted unanimously to accept a cut in their retirement contribution.
The cut is the same as that agreed to by the employees union. The county’s contribution to the supervisors’ retirement will be reduced from 7 percent to 4 percent.
The cuts will go before the board for final adoption April 3. They will go into effect 60 days later.
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