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Lawyers Improperly Got Merit Raises, County Attorney Says

October 18, 1994|DWAYNE BRAY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As many as two dozen county prosecutors and public defenders have been able to circumvent a countywide pay-freeze plan and received improper merit raises, the attorney for the Ventura County Board of Supervisors concluded Monday.

In a move that promises to spark controversy between county administrators and the lawyers who keep the local justice system running, auditors will be instructed today to revoke the raises given to the 18 deputy district attorneys and seven deputy public defenders.

"Is it fair for all other county employees . . . to not have raises and have the attorneys still getting them?" asked County Personnel Director Ronald W. Komers.

In June, 1993, the board voted to deny merit raises to more than half the county's 6,000 employees, including those public defenders and prosecutors.

Most of the employees affected were relatively new hires who had not yet reached the top of their pay scale and were thus eligible for step increases, paid for each additional year of service.

In its bid to save about $3.23 million, the board voted 3 to 1 to delay those yearly pay raises from July, 1993, until this July. Under the plan, no one would receive merit raises for that one-year period until after 1995, Komers said.

When that pay freeze expired in July, the prosecutors and public defenders were not only granted this year's step increase, but in many cases received raises for the year their pay was frozen.

An error in the way those forms were processed resulted in at least some lawyers getting the full raises their bosses requested for them, officials said.

"Fairness is the major issue, as far as I'm concerned," the personnel director said, noting that other county employees are not receiving raises for the year that the pay freeze was in effect. "Our goal is to save $3.2 million, and we indicated in front of the board that it would take two years to recover that."

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But Monday's legal opinion that the raises were improper, written by Deputy County Counsel Leroy Smith, did not sit well with those affected by its conclusion.

"We still believe we have the ability to bump those people to where they would have been if it were not for that freeze," argued Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Kevin J. McGee, who said as many as 18 of his prosecutors received such raises.

One of the public defenders affected by Monday's ruling said he felt betrayed.

"I feel that I've been cheated is what it amounts to," groused Deputy Public Defender Bruce N. Freed.

Freed's case is representative of the situation of many of those who are facing pay cuts.

He was being paid as a public defender with 4 1/2 years experience when the freeze took effect in July, 1993. At the time, he was only weeks away from earning pay as an attorney with five full years of service to the county.

So when Freed finished his sixth year as a public defender shortly after the pay freeze was lifted in July, his bosses rewarded him by raising his pay to the level of a six-year attorney. A public defender or prosecutor with six years experience typically makes about $69,000.

But now, his pay will have to be reconfigured, officials said.

None of this, of course, sits well with Freed, who said he bought a home with the expectation that his county salary would grow relative to his experience.

"Many of us left other jobs because working for the county, the one thing you can count on is security," he said. "Now, they may want me to return money to them having done nothing wrong."

Komers said Freed and others never should have received raises for any of the period covering the freeze. He said that because they are not part of the county's regular employees unions, their paperwork was mistakenly processed differently and raises were approved.

"The paperwork looks differently for the attorneys than for regular employees," he said.

Komers said he will ask Auditor-Controller Thomas O. Mahon to revoke the improper raises today and roll back the lawyers' pay to where it is supposed to be.

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