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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

County CAO Accuses Welfare Chief of an End Run on Hiring

Government: Harry Hufford contends the official went behind his back to the Board of Supervisors in an attempt to break a job freeze.

March 18, 2000|MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County's top administrator Harry Hufford blasted welfare chief Barbara Fitzgerald on Friday, charging she went behind his back to the Board of Supervisors in an effort to break a hiring freeze.

Hufford's criticism marked the first time he has rebuked a top official for going around him, a problem cited by him and his predecessor, David L. Baker, as a reason for the county's general financial troubles.

Hufford also said he is concerned that a member of Fitzgerald's staff may have put an abused child at risk as part of a "media campaign the child health care workers have initiated" to press for additional employees.

When Hufford took the job in January, his mission was to guide the county out of a financial mess that left it with a predicted $5- million budget shortfall and to fix organizational problems that contributed to overspending.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 2, 2000 Ventura County Edition Metro Part B Page 16 Zones Desk 3 inches; 93 words Type of Material: Correction
County meetings--A March 26 editorial and earlier news reports misstated the chronology of meetings that led to accusations of an end run around Ventura County interim Chief Administrative Officer Harry Hufford by a county department head. Here is the correct sequence of events: Employees of the Human Services Agency seeking relief from the county's hiring freeze took their concerns to Supervisor Kathy Long. She referred them to Hufford. HSA Director Barbara Fitzgerald later met with Hufford, who rejected her request for a hiring-freeze waiver. After further talks with Fitzgerald, Hufford relented and allowed the hiring of two additional workers.

He instituted a hiring freeze and also made it clear that behind-the-scenes deal-cutting between supervisors and department heads had to stop. Supervisors have said they agreed.

But on Friday, Hufford contended Fitzgerald is engaging in the same political game-playing that he said helped create the budgetary problems.

Fitzgerald, chief of the county's Human Services Agency, declined comment on Friday.

Supervisor Kathy Long, chairwoman of the board, acknowledged Friday that she met this week with four of Fitzgerald's child protective services workers. Hufford was not invited to that meeting, which occurred after he rejected Fitzgerald's argument that she needed a waiver of the hiring freeze.

Fitzgerald's employees went to Long with concerns about under-staffing and turnover in the department, Long said. Long said she told the employees she wouldn't promise them anything until Hufford presented her with an analysis of the situation, and his recommendations.

"Harry's the lead on that," Long said. "I'm not going to buy into it until Harry's analysis is handled."

Meanwhile, Hufford said he became concerned that caseworkers might be using at-risk children as political bait, after a resident contacted him this week.

Hufford said the woman, whom he declined to identify, told him she had called Fitzgerald's department to report a possible abuse case involving a child in her neighborhood who had a black eye. Hufford said the woman told him the staff member said the agency "could not take the case under supervision because of a hiring freeze."

Supervisor Frank Schillo called the scenario laid out by Hufford "unconscionable," and said he blames Fitzgerald for creating a climate that would encourage an employee to respond in such a manner.

"If she thinks that shortage is a real problem there, she should move people over from other staff to that division to take some of the responsibility," Schillo said. "But she's using it as a way of manipulating the system, rather than caring for the clients."

Long said she would be shocked if an employee told a caller that new cases could not be handled.

"I'm not happy to hear that kind of comment coming from a worker to the public, and I will not settle for that," Long said.

Hufford has yet to be convinced the purported shortage of caseworkers is real.

He said when Fitzgerald came to him earlier this week to make her case to lift the freeze, he asked her how many caseworkers she had lost because of the freeze, how many case files exist and what the standard ratio of cases per caseworker should be.

He said Fitzgerald told him her child protective services staff of 96 would be dropping to 81 and that 891 cases were active. She said 35 cases per worker was a reasonable ratio of cases per caseworker, Hufford said.

Dividing 891 by 81, Hufford determined that under Fitzgerald's own worst-case scenario, caseworkers on average would have only 11 cases each, meaning her department actually was overstaffed.

Fitzgerald has since told Hufford the numbers were wrong and requested a new meeting, set for Monday, in which he expects her to paint a bleaker picture, he said.

If Fitzgerald convinces him there is a critical shortage, Hufford said, he will consider making an exception to the freeze. In the meantime, he said, he is investigating the handling of the abuse complaint.

Barry Hammitt, chief of the county's largest employees union, which represents child protective services workers, said the allegation over the handling of the call doesn't ring true to him.

"I find it hard to believe any of the children's services social workers would tell anybody they couldn't take the case because there's a hiring freeze on," he said. "It's just alien to their being."

"I don't know who answered the phone, and without knowing a name it strikes me as more of being sensationalism than being a fact. The child services workers I know bleed for their clients and go the extra mile to make sure people are serviced."

Hammitt said he sympathized with Hufford's desire to prevent end runs around the chief administrative officer.

"There's nothing worse in being a manager than getting blindsided," he said. Still, if Fitzgerald or her staff members believed the freeze was a critical issue, they had an obligation to make their case to anyone who would listen, he said.

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