The Door to Employee Bullying Opens Just a Crack
The issue of Bullying in El Dorado County took front stage at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting as Supervisor Ray Nutting asked the Board to take further action on bullying in the El Dorado County workplace. Earlier this year Supervisor Ron Briggs asked the Board to direct staff to prepare a policy. Staff, including the new HR Director, has been working on the issue over the summer but noting had been made public.
On a parallel tract, many members of the public have been talking to their Supervisors about bullying of county employees and by county employees. Not only was the public going to official channels, but they were also going directly to the public on websites like www.covac.info that exposes corruption in El Dorado County.
Two weeks ago, Supervisor Ray Nutting asked his fellow Supervisors to hear from the public, give staff additional direction, and ask for a timely report on the status of the policy work. Last week he also asked the Board to open some recent closed session items relating to bullying in the county, but the fellow Board members were not ready to go that far. Later Nutting said that the Board had heard so things in closed session that would enrage the public and drive them to demand immediate and significant action.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the item opened at 3:00 pm and many people remained to speak. Four Supervisors, Nutting, Santiago, Briggs, and Veerkamp, seemed to be very concerned about abuses of, and by, employees of the county and expressed the concern as the item was introduced. Supervisor Mikulako expressed different concerns when he spoke of the need to balance any county policy with protecting the employee on one hand, and making sure the Board did not give them (the employees) any needless opportunity to sue the county. He said the county would have to weigh the cost of increased lawsuits to the cost of increased employee turnover due to a hostile work environment.
Chairman Supervisor Briggs said, “We know we have these problems.” He added that the policy would apply to both regular employees and Elected El Dorado County officials. He admonished Supervisor Nutting not to reveal closed session secrets and later became testy when Briggs accused Nutting of being late to the game since he was on the Board for 13 years before he complained about the issue. As tempers flared the Board to a wise 5-minute break after which Supervisor nutting returned to say that Briggs was right! That he was 10 years late to take such a strong stand on the issue. Moreover, for the Nutting said, “I am sorry it took me so long.” He said that he might be late, but now that he understands the magnitude of the problem, he will be unrelenting in his quest to see bullying end in El Dorado County government.
Supervisor Santiago was involved with the issue for several months and welcomed the public spotlight on the important issue. She has been working with staff and echoed a common thread of the discussion by Board members and many of those that spoke.
Supervisor Nutting summed up the point by saying that El Dorado County has had 11 different heads of HR recently. That such a high turnover was not a coincidence, but symptomatic of the seriousness of the problem in the county. He opined that the reason was that the problems of bullying go to the highest levels of government and among some of the most entrenched. That the current HR Director is great at her job but she will fail at this task without some outside assistance. He implied that the problem was too entrenched locally and the only way to move ahead was to bring in a neutral third party.
Several speakers also said that the only way to succeed was to get outside help. Even the head of HR stepped up to say that a third-party assessment of the current workplace environment might be in order, recognizing the benefit of an objective outside opinion.
Speakers were direct and emotional and many were well known in the community. Speaking of their own, or that of their immediate family member, the stress that workplace bullying takes was evident on their faces as that talked about how the bad treatment at work clouded all of their personal lives.
A 21-year veteran Transportation employee spoke of a dead-end as complaints were shunted away under the explanation, “that it was done in the County’s best interests.” He said that he won his suit against the county because the harassment he suffered was ‘vindictiveness.’
Jere Copeland, Executive Director El Dorado County Employees Association, Local #1 spoke about the Gray Area of Bullying. That employees were protected from Violence and ‘special groups’ of people were specifically protected from bullying, but if you were not in one of those groups, if it was not violent, or if there were no witnesses, then there was a problem doing something.
Local Businessman and Political Consultant Dan Dellinger spoke about how some of the same people accused of be bullying county employees are also know in the business community as bullies. He spoke about how they abuse the power of the office for personal and political purposes.
Notable businessperson and political activist John Stelzmiller spoke about his experience with county employees that kept silent in fear of losing their jobs. He echoed that political retribution by county employees does happen in El Dorado County.
Richard Smith, former President of the Garden Valley Fire Department, spoke about how some high-level county employees use the power of their office to harass other government agencies like fire districts and Community Service Districts.
Many speakers spoke about the problem without going into detail and most confirmed the need for outside intervention.
Perhaps one of the most moving speakers was local activist and the person restoring the old Hangman’s Tree building who spoke about her own, and her daughters’, experience working for the county. She explained how she taught daughter to get along, but to stand up for someone that is being abused. She said that her daughter did do that when a co-worked filed a complaint. She gave an account of what had been happening to her co-worker, but instead of things getting better, they got worse. She suffered for three years working here after that before taking a job out-of-state.
Sue Taylor went on to add that the IT Department is an example of a wrong-minded corporate-culture in El Dorado County. In order to enforce changes in the IT Department in El Dorado County the DA, Vern Pierson, was made head of IT for the county. Not because he knew anything more than the average Joe about computers, but because he had the horsepower of the District Attorney’s office to force policy changes. She said the county chose to take the Bully approach rather than the carrot of bringing in outside experts to layout the options so the staff could take ownership of the change and move ahead with an effective and motivated staff. Instead we have a staff beat down with the club of the DA’s office and employee morale that is best called ‘fearful.’
After public comment, the Supervisors made some closing comments. Chairman Briggs said, “We, as a Board, agree that there is a problem, where we go from here is the question.” Most were enthusiast in getting the staff to report back in November about the status of where the policy was and other issues.
Supervisor Ron Mikulako was less enthusiast about strengthening the protections and fast-tracking the policy. He said the he understood, “that they (employees) feel they have been bullied” But that he himself had been exposed to many hazing type rituals but he had never bullied…” explaining that the feeling of being bullied was unknown to him. After expressing reservation about how it might open the county to more lawsuits, he voted with the rest of the Supervisors to move ahead with a more aggressive policy response that included outside assistance.
The issue is expected back in November pending scheduling.