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INTERVIEW

Greg Zermeno

Youth Authority Director Draws on 28 Years in Department to Take Charge of Troubled Agency

May 09, 1999|DOUG ADRIANSON and SARAH HOLEMAN | TIMES EDITORS

Greg Zermeno has been working his way up through the ranks of the California Youth Authority for 28 years. He could hardly have known that when he made it to the top job, he would find himself in a hot seat indeed.

Zermeno, 52, was appointed director in March after his predecessor was removed following an investigation of sexual misconduct at the Ventura School in Camarillo, the only coed facility of the CYA's 15 institutions.

In a scathing analysis, a state inspector general reported that Ventura School had "a systemic problem" of lax management that allowed sexual misconduct by employees and inmates to continue, and resulted in unfair treatment and sexual harassment of women employees. The inspector noted "a climate of fear among employees," a system slow to react to chronic problems and an extraordinary 64 misconduct investigations by internal affairs in 1998 alone.

Zermeno has moved quickly to replace that climate of fear with an open-door policy--and to replace several of the top officials at Ventura School. To take charge, he is drawing on skills learned throughout his career.

Born in Salinas to a father who emigrated from Mexico and a mother born in the United States, he attended public schools and junior college. He recalls being "a typical wise guy high school student. I was bright enough that I didn't have to work too hard for my grades. I played a lot and had a lot of fun." But his life with the youth authority never included the role of client.

At 19, married and in need of a job, he landed work as a combination cook and counselor in a small juvenile hall in Monterey County.

"I didn't know how to cook but I learned real quick," he says.

He also had a lot to learn about the rest of the job.

"I had no idea what juvenile delinquency was, who juvenile offenders were, or anything else."

He describes that experience as "a very family-run kind of operation. Things were very relaxed. I loved Salinas and I loved the job. But the superintendent aggressively encouraged me to get the hell out of there and get an education, finish up my degree. So he assisted me in getting a job at Santa Clara County Juvenile Hall."

There he worked evenings and went to school during the day. After earning a degree in sociology / corrections management from San Jose State, he landed a job with the CYA in 1971.

"I was a parole agent on the east side of San Jose--an economically deprived, somewhat tough area. Then I just progressed up the ladder. I now have 28 years in the youth authority, 14 of those as superintendent of various institutions.

"I like the people I've worked with at every facility and I like the challenges of working with these young folks."

He spoke last week with Times editors Doug Adrianson and Sarah Holeman.

* * *

Question: It's been two months since Gov. Gray Davis placed you in command of the California Youth Authority. What marching orders did he give you, and what steps have you taken so far?

Answer: When I met with the governor, his marching orders were very clear. He expects an efficient operation that deals--directly and indirectly--with the protection of the public. I am to make all necessary enhancements and continue things that speak to those directives.

*

Q: In a nutshell, what is the job description of the CYA director?

A: The No. 1 priority is to ensure the implementation of the Youth Authority Act, which specifically states that it is my responsibility to run the entire operations of the CYA in terms of personnel, policy, budget; to enhance public safety through education programming and any other aspect I think is necessary to meet that goal.

*

Q: What progress have you made toward correcting the problems at Ventura School? What remains to be done?

A: A number of things have been done. No. 1, there has been a complete change in administrative staff. We have a new chief of security. We now have two assistant superintendents instead of one--one for females, one for males. We have a new superintendent, Greg Lowe. Greg Lowe has gone in with his group and met with all the staff and started a number of committees. The essence of his approach is to ensure a close working relationship with the line staff and the administration so that gap between those two levels is really narrowed down and so there's an open-door policy. Everybody agrees about the reason they are there: to do their job.

In addition, as you know, we have had a number of investigations. Most of those have been concluded now. In this past month, five to seven staff members were assigned to Ventura School solely to conclude the investigations, to ensure that they were adequate, complete, fair and professional.

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