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California and the West

San Luis Obispo County Fires Chief Probation Officer

March 23, 2001|SALLY ANN CONNELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN LUIS OBISPO — Effective today, the county's chief probation officer--who once made headlines for refusing to send juvenile offenders to the California Youth Authority--has been fired for allegedly not showing up for work and not doing his job.

John Lum, who believes that institutionalizing young offenders does little to rehabilitate them, maintains that the charges against him stem from a witch hunt conducted by conservative officials out to ruin his career.

The 52-year-old official had been on paid leave during a five-month Board of Supervisors investigation. On March 6, supervisors unanimously voted in closed session to dismiss him, and they confirmed their decision in a second vote Wednesday.

San Luis Obispo County officials declined to comment because they expect Lum to file a lawsuit.

Indeed, Lum said Thursday that he intends to take the decision to the county's Civil Service commission within the next month and into court after that if necessary. His salary was $101,000 annually.

"I take it as a compliment that I am out of step with California," said Lum, who was a harsh critic of Proposition 21, which calls for tougher sentences for juveniles and was overwhelmingly passed.

Though San Luis Obispo is a liberal and environmentally oriented college town, the county is dominated by a large rural population that tends to vote heavily Republican. Much of the county is virtually crime-free.

Lum became increasingly unpopular with law enforcement officials proud of that record, including many police chiefs, some prosecutors, and all of the Superior Court judges.

Judges particularly have been upset that he has allowed his probation officers to make multiple and conflicting recommendations in the reports that judges must use as tools in sentencing criminals. They also say Lum's staff did not adequately supervise felons on probation.

Lum was put on paid leave in October, and Superior Court Administrator Wayne Hall said judges have been pleased with changes made since his departure.

"The judges will tell you it's like night and day since he has been gone," Hall said. "The court depends on probation to supervise those the court puts on probation, and it depends on probation for sentencing recommendations. It had gotten really convoluted under Mr. Lum."

But Lum's case has divided his department and the county. Though 17 employees sent the board a detailed list of Lum's inadequacies, another 19 wrote saying he had the "utmost integrity."

While those in law enforcement scratch their heads over his decisions, parents of juvenile offenders liked being able to call him at home about their children.

At the state level, Lum was the first county probation chief to harshly criticize California Youth Authority facilities as inhumane. He also has sharply derided Gov. Gray Davis' plan to establish the Turning Point Academy, a boot camp for juvenile offenders at Camp San Luis Obispo.

In 1996 and again in 1999, Lum was criticized by the county for getting personally involved with youthful offenders by either taking them on field trips or letting them live at his home.

Jim Grant, the assistant county administrative officer in charge of the Lum investigation, called Lum a "virtual" department head during much of 1999 because he often couldn't be found. Grant said Lum planned to move from the probation office to juvenile hall, but never set up the new office.

Lum does not deny it, saying he worked out of his home and car.

"Part of what I have been trying to say to the staff is that people don't need an office to do the job," he said.

"When I first arrived in San Luis Obispo County, other department heads informed me that the plan here is to not make waves," he said.

"They said, 'It's paradise, a great place to retire.' Well, I didn't come here to retire. I came here to be an agent of change."

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