Last summer, San Luis Obispo County’s Human Resources Director Tami Douglas-Schatz held a secret meeting in closed session with the county Board of Supervisors to deliver a message: The Civil Service Commission is out of control.
There was no follow-up report of what was said at the meeting and, indeed, the five members of the Civil Service Commission were completely unaware their behavior had ever been questioned, let alone in a bureaucratic venue generally reserved for backroom chatter about legal threats facing the county.
When the commissioners—most of whom have served for more than a decade—learned of that closed session, they were, in a manner of speaking, kind of pissed.
“I’ve never had my integrity questioned before,” Commissioner Bill Tappan said at the commission’s Aug. 3, 2011, meeting.
“There’s a strong perception that we are out of control, and I absolutely don’t understand why,” Commissioner Art Chapman added.
A report had been drafted in June detailing complaints against the commission as a whole, but they weren’t allowed to see it at the time. Instead, the commissioners were brought in by the SLO County supervisors who appointed them, and asked, effectively, “What the hell is going on?”
At the commission’s Aug. 3, 2011, meeting, Commission President Jeannie Nix relayed what her appointee, Supervisor Adam Hill, had said of the complaints:
• Inappropriate questioning of witnesses, with questions delving into gender and sexist biases.
• Badgering witnesses.
• Department heads have accused commissioners of bias.
• The commission is incurring unauthorized expenses.
Overall, according to what Nix was told, “The commission is out of control and has failed to seek or accept the advice of the [Human Resources] director.”
The Civil Service Commission is a five-member body appointed by the SLO County Board of Supervisors and tasked with two major responsibilities: to review and amend county employment rules and to preside as a quasi-judicial panel when an employee appeals disciplinary actions from county department heads.
Only within the last few weeks were commissioners allowed to see Douglas-Schatz’s confidential report. But the situation has only degraded in that time.
Certainly it’s the first time the commission has been hit with such widespread mistrust. Most commissioners have served several terms, and were re-appointed even after electoral changes on the Board of Supervisors. Nix, for example, has served for about 12 years. A former Red Cross human resources expert and the wife of Pismo Beach city councilman and District 3 supervisor candidate Ed Waage, she served several four-year terms before losing the seat in 2009. At the time, then freshman Supervisor Hill appointed Patricia Gomez to take over Nix’s seat. Gomez, however, left the commission after about a year and Hill re-appointed Nix.
In an attempt to calm the waters, county officials and the commission decided to put together a “working group.”
The working group swiftly failed.
After just two meetings, the group has disbanded; at least, commissioners have refused to continue participating, citing possible Brown Act violations. Nix and Tappan were selected to represent the commission in front of a roomful of other county officials. Those meetings also included Douglas-Schatz, county attorneys, and an administrator. In effect, Nix and Tappan were outnumbered.
“Rather than the collaborative discussion hoped for, Bill [Tappan] and I have been repeatedly caught off guard and have not received advance information that the rest of the group had in preparation of the meetings,” Nix wrote to county officials after the last working group meeting in November.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the commission is that it’s supposed to be independent. When it comes to appeal hearings, commissioners should lie somewhere between the county (which doles out punishment) and the employee (who is fighting that punishment). Commissioners have affirmed in public that they are not a “rubber stamp” for the county.
But a rubber stamp, it seems, is exactly what some people are looking for. According to commissioners and documents released after the initial working group meetings, county officials have suggested the HR director should be allowed to participate in the commission’s closed session meetings. A few officials have even suggested modifying the ordinance dictating the commission’s role. Such a maneuver would gut some of the commission’s power and place more constraints on its members.
Douglas-Schatz told New Times, “Like any organization, we sometimes identify issues or problems and need to work to address them with process improvements.”
Nix and Tappan stopped participating in the working group when county officials started talking about modifying the ordinance. Such discussions, they said, should have been held in an open public session.
Nix, who worried the county may have overstepped its legal bounds during the working group meetings, consulted with a private attorney. On Dec. 21, she presented a letter to the commission and the county detailing her meeting with the still-unnamed private attorney. According to that attorney, the county may have violated the Ralph M. Brown Act when it convened the working group in private sessions.
“If the working group is a separate county advisory body, it must comply with the Brown Act ...” Nix and Tappan wrote county officials.
County officials replied that there was no Brown Act violation. In a response letter to Nix and Tappan, supervisors Bruce Gibson and Frank Mecham said, “… the working group was established and functioning properly in compliance with the Brown Act.”
In the letter, the county also proposed Brown Act training sessions for commissioners.
The big thing to understand is that the complaints against the commission aren’t coming from county employees. The county’s largest public employee union, San Luis Obispo County Employees’ Association (SLOCEA), hasn’t joined in the fracas. In fact, SLOCEA General Manager Kimm Daniels has repeatedly and publicly defended the commissioners.
“I have lost more cases than I have won before your commission,” she said at the Aug. 3 meeting. “… This really surprises me, and it really saddens me because we went through a very rough spot a few years ago, and I thought all of that was behind us.”
That rough spot occurred with the former HR director, Deb Hossli. Commissioners originally blocked Hossli for the job, and while she ultimately got the position, her stint lasted less than two years.
After months of mystery, the commissioners were allowed to review Douglas-Schatz’s original report. A special meeting was scheduled for Jan. 25 to discuss the issue, but that, too, failed.
Nix e-mailed HR and County Counsel two days before the scheduled meeting to say she was sick. She asked to postpone the meeting a week, but it went on as planned. However, two other commissioners—Tappan and Bob Bergman—decided not to attend if one member was going to be absent.
“I was able to make it to the meeting, however I chose not to … the topic is of great importance for all five commissioners to be present,” Bergman said in an e-mail to New Times.
On Jan. 25, there were two commissioners present, not enough for a quorum, but they still discussed the complaint against the commission briefly and took public comment.
“I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about this problem,” Commissioner Salter said in front of a crowd uncharacteristically large for commission meetings. “It has grown more and more complex and difficult to manage.”
Due to the confidential nature of personnel matters, commissioners generally declined to ask questions when contacted by New Times. Nix declined to answer questions about specific complaints, but stressed “We are not a rubber stamp for the Human Resources Department; we are not a rubber stamp for the County Counsel; and we’re not a rubber stamp for the Board of Supervisors.”
News Editor Colin Rigley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.