Anyone who has any illusion that Merced County government is capable of self-reform should meditate on the passages in bold red letters below, including rank hypocritical utterance hurled by a politically wounded county supervisor against the vices that breed like little mices in the County Temple of Misfeasance, Malfeasance and Nonfeasance on the corner of M and 23rd streets in Merced CA.
In January it was reported that a contributing cause to Public Defender Eric Dumars resignation, perhaps the main cause, was the revelation of his affair with Ellie Souders, 32, daughter of District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey.
The most recent article in the McClatchy Chain’s local outlet looks like a sanitation job done to help the public forget what kind of people represent it on the board and were alleged to represent it in the public defender’s office.
The paper joined into the all-pervasive hypocrisy, probably trying to repair a path of “access.”
But, lest we weep for the way elected and appointed county officials treat their own employees, we should be aware of the way they treat the public.
County leaders respond to rash of employee problems…Ramona Giwargis
A series of public departures and high-profile problems involving county employees over the past two months has put the spotlight on the policies and procedures used to oversee a public agency that employs more than 2,000 people.
The year began with the high-profile resignation of county Public Defender Eric Dumars following lengthy closed-door meetings of county supervisors. Before Dumars’ resignation, the county paid more than $25,000 for an investigator to look into claims of favoritism, potential retaliation and a perceived relationship between Dumars and a Merced County supervisor’s daughter.
A few weeks later, District 1 Supervisor John Pedrozo announced that his assistant, Brenda Valenzuela-Porras was no longer a county employee. Her release came after a Sun-Star investigation showed she had checked out county vehicles despite having a suspended driver’s license – she denied driving them – and called Pedrozo to get him to intervene when she was pulled over by police for speeding in her own car.
The county did not review Valenzuela-Porras’ driving record at the time of her hire or during employment, despite the fact that she drove the county vehicle as part of her job.
A short time later, a county collections supervisor, Anthony J. Thompson, retired after being arrested by the Sheriff’s Department in a sexual bribery case. Investigators said Thompson promised to manipulate the amount of money one woman’s son owed the county in exchange for “sexual favors” and “dates.” Thompson was also the subject of an internal investigation that cost the county $30,703.20.
County Executive Officer Jim Brown said he doesn’t believe Merced County has lost the public’s trust because of the recent series of unrelated events. He said the county has addressed each issue as it has happened.
“If we don’t recommend addressing issues, that’s when we could jeopardize losing the public’s trust,” Brown said. “If you look at the situations that have been published in the Sun-Star, there has been a process that has kicked in and has resulted in us addressing the situation.”
Brown said the county is reviewing current policies, such as DMV background checks for employees, but no changes have been made thus far.
Late last year, the county implemented employee and supervisor development training courses – a first for the county.
“They weren’t as a result of these issues, but it was an area that we recognized we needed additional training,” Brown said. “We are constantly reviewing how we run our organization, and this is an area we felt we could do a better job of providing training and improving skill sets for employees and managers.”
Brown said management staff will learn “best practices” for disciplining and terminating employees. This comes in handy since department heads are the only ones who can fire employees, with direction from human resources and county counsel.
District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey said putting the focus back on the people who work for the county – not just the county numbers and the budget – will go a long way in retaining good employees.
“We don’t touch base with these people on an annual basis,” Kelsey said. “Our contact with employees is project-driven or issue-driven, but we need to focus on the larger picture. People want to see their leaders, and you need to show them you’ve got their back and you’re interested in their world.”
Kelsey said the county used to have annual reviews for employees but that they haven’t been done in many years. Brown, who’s been in the CEO job for about two years, said he has started sitting down with department heads to review performance over the past month.
Kelsey said the county’s administration often moves up the “next-in-line” person to open positions as opposed to hiring from the outside.
“Instead of going out and recruiting, we move up people that have been with the county a long time,” she said. “We’re trying to save money and get the same job done. Many of the positions we have filled without an open recruitment process have been for leadership positions.”
For example, the county recently appointed Vincent Andrade, chief deputy public defender, to act as interim public defender. However, Brown said a recruitment process is underway to fill the permanent public defender position as well as other leadership vacancies, such as county librarian and mental health director.
“In looking for upper management and department head positions, my philosophy is to try to identify the best individuals to lead the department,” Brown said. “That’s why we are now doing full recruitments statewide for our department heads.”
Brown said the biggest challenge in running an organization as large as Merced County is constantly evaluating the operation to make sure it has good people and systems in place.
Board Chairman and District 5 Supervisor Jerry O’Banion said the issues that have cropped up in the past few months have been going on for a while, though it seems they all happened at once.
“Yes, we’ve had a rash of problems in the county recently, but these folks were working for the county before, and maybe the problem should have been found and dealt with earlier on,” O’Banion said. “It’s more of an ongoing situation, and it’s now coming to light.”
O’Banion said it’s important that administrators seek advice and communicate about employee personnel issues before they arise.
“You can learn from mistakes,” he said, “and the main thing is we need to do a good job of reviewing individuals that we’re going to put into those important positions that are going to take the leadership in running departments.”
“You need to have department heads and administrators that actually communicate and have a clear understanding of the mission,” she said. “There’s a lot of trial and error when you hire any employee. But the background check would have been helpful, and I think we should have them for those who work in the county office.”
District 1 Supervisor John Pedrozo, District 2 Supervisor Hub Walsh and District 3 Supervisor Linn Davis did not return calls for comment.
BY RAMONA GIWARGIS
Claims of favoritism, potential retaliation and workplace safety concerns, all against the backdrop of a perceived relationship between the public defender and a Merced County supervisor’s daughter.
Those were the themes of an independent investigation launched by Merced County after receiving complaints about Eric Dumars, the county’s public defender. The 134-page report, obtained Friday by the Merced Sun-Star through a public records request, paints a contentious picture of a staff divided by both support and animosity toward Dumars.
Dumars’ Fresno-based attorney, Barry Bennett, called the report a “bunch of gossip” and an opportunity for attorneys in the Public Defender’s Office to advance their own careers at his client’s expense. Bennett said Dumars couldn’t comment about the report Friday because of the agreement with the county that led to his resignation.
Dumars, 41, submitted an official resignation letter to the Board of Supervisors this week. Earlier this month, he wrote an email to his staff announcing the decision, which came after county supervisors discussed his potential dismissal in closed-door meetings.
The internal investigation was launched by the county after a late September suicide attempt by Dumars, which resulted in his extended leave of absence. The investigation stemmed from a written complaint by an employee of the Public Defender’s Office in October. The complaint outlined favoritism in the office, erratic and threatening behavior by Dumars and was consistent with two prior complaints, according to the report.
Merced County hired Susan Hatmaker, a Fresno-based attorney, to investigate the claims. Hatmaker could not be reached for comment Friday.
After interviewing Dumars and 12 of his employees, Hatmaker’s report backed up claims of favoritism because of Dumars’ “perceived relationship” with Ellie Souders, the daughter of District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey.
Souders, 32, voluntarily resigned her position as an “extra help deputy public defender” on Jan. 3, according to county Management Analyst Mike North. She was originally hired in March 2011, then laid off and rehired on Aug. 3, 2011.
The report said most interviewees believed Dumars and Souders were “in an intimate relationship” based on conduct observed by them. They were often described as a “couple” and “inseparable,” and Souders was seen inside Dumars’ office for hours on a daily basis – sometimes after 7 p.m. with the door closed, according to the report.
On another occasion, the two were spotted returning to the office 20 minutes after they had both left separately, the report said. Dumars also invited Souders to a training course designed for supervisors, though she was an “extra help” public defender.
The investigation recounted observations by employees, but the investigator also stated none of the interviewees had information that could “definitively support” a sexual relationship between Dumars and Souders. They were never observed “kissing, touching each other” in an intimate manner.
Bennett said claims of a relationship are based on speculation and rumor. He said a number of attorneys, not just Souders, spent time “behind closed doors” discussing cases with Dumars.
“It may be because of her mom’s position that people thought he was trying to help her,” Bennett said. “It made people jealous because she was capable at her job – it was almost like her undoing.”
In a written statement to the Sun-Star, Souders said the allegations about her relationship with Dumars are based on exaggerations and blatant lies. “First, I would like to address the most disturbing of the allegations, namely that there is witness to Mr. Dumars and myself alone in his office after hours with his door shut,” Souders said in the statement. “This is a lie, a complete falsehood spun from whole cloth.
“I have worked late, along with many of the attorneys at the Public Defender’s Office, and on occasion Mr. Dumars would also work late,” she continued. “But he and I have never engaged in any inappropriate behavior. I take my job very seriously and would never treat my workplace with such disrespect.”
Kelsey also responded Thursday to the investigation involving her daughter, saying the author reached “faulty conclusions” by relying on complainants who had not been sworn to tell the truth.
“Apparently, lying to the investigator is an acceptable standard if the end result meets the intended objective,” Kelsey said in a written statement. “I view the fact that this biased investigation has led to the resignation of a capable and dedicated public servant as a disgrace. “
“It is a failure of the county administrative leadership, by the CEO and county counsel, who treated the investigative process not as a search for the truth, but as a means to eliminate an outspoken advocate for his department,” she continued.
The investigation also detailed other alleged behavior by Dumars, like beating a file box with a softball bat in his office, punching a filing cabinet and engaging in “screaming episodes.” He allegedly called a subordinate a “f------” in a text message, but said it was done in the “spirit of friendship.”
Bennett said several witnesses saw the softball bat incident and said it was a joke. “It’s hard to credit that people feared for their physical safety,” he said. “I really find that hard to believe because he’s not a violent person. He’s the last person in the world who’d want to get into a fight with someone.”
Bennett said the investigation was one-sided and didn’t include interviews with all employees of the Public Defender’s Office and appeared to favor those who spoke negatively about Dumars. He said the report also didn’t include a dozen letters of support from past and present employees.
“It looked to me that they made up their minds what direction the investigation would go and hired someone who would take it that way,” Bennett said. “It just seemed like anyone that supported Eric weren’t interviewed in the same depth.”
Dumars has been public defender since March 25, 2013, county documents show, and served as acting public defender since December 2011. He was hired Aug. 1, 2005, as a deputy public defender II.
He left office on administrative leave after the attempted suicide on Sept. 28. Dumars apparently visited the office at least once after his leave, but was told by County Executive Officer Jim Brown that he was not allowed to do so.
The complaints about Dumars came after his leave of absence, Bennett said.
The investigation by Hatmaker doesn’t detail Dumars’ medical history, but Bennett said his client was seen by an independent doctor selected by the county and was deemed fit to return to work.
On Friday, the Sun-Star also obtained a copy of a letter Dumars sent to the Board of Supervisors on Jan. 10, explaining his illness and asking for his job back.
“I am not a perfect person and have made many mistakes. However, the complaints are false. The timing was incredible. The investigation was poorly done,” Dumars said in the letter. “I firmly believe that if restored to my position I can put it back on track. I am well, and my decision-making is no longer clouded by the acute attack I suffered in September. I am undergoing a course of treatment that could potentially last a lifetime.”
Even though Dumars submitted his voluntary resignation to the board, he will remain on paid administrative leave for a couple more months as part of his agreement with the county, officials said.