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Rallying Union Workers Assail O.C. Grand Jury

County employees complain to supervisors that the panel's report on benefits was one-sided.

May 21, 2003|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

About 150 unionized county workers rallied before the Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to protest a grand jury report that criticized benefit increases it said could cost $75 million this fiscal year alone.

The workers rose to their feet to support the president of the sheriff's deputies union as he criticized the Orange County Grand Jury's findings and accused the panel of conducting a one-sided investigation. Wayne Quint, president of the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, called on the board to appoint an independent investigator to study the grand jury's findings.

"The allegations contained in that report are suspect and misleading -- if not, in fact, false," Quint said.

Supervisors took no action on the issue but invited workers to provide more information to them to consider in reviewing the grand jury report later this year.

The grand jury has issued three critical reports this year about the county's human resources department, the most recent report targeting bonuses and other perks for county workers negotiated by the department.

Now the workers -- and members of the Office of Human Resources --are fighting back. They say the grand jury ignored their offers to testify about the allegations and the history behind those added benefits.

One human resources employee faxed a letter to the grand jury Tuesday, saying she believes it was "reprehensible" that the panel reached its findings without interviewing her and others who asked to testify.

"I think the question needs to be asked: Who is pulling the strings of this puppet grand jury?" asked Jeri Muth, an employee relations manager. "To summarily dismiss those who could have provided you with substantiated data, the facts and a different perspective is reprehensible."

Lisa Major, another human resources manager, also questioned the grand jury investigation.

"If you don't talk to everybody, how can your report be fair and balanced?" Major said. "The grand jury is supposed to be a watchdog of county government. My question is, Who's watching the watchdog?"

Major said she called the grand jury's Santa Ana offices in January and asked to testify about her department. She said she did not receive a return call.

At least four other employees wrote to the grand jury and asked to be interviewed. They received form letters and were not called to testify.

The jury, whose findings are purely advisory, has written about allegations of sexual harassment in human resources and has criticized the department for overspending on a consultant's contract.

The most recent report, issued last week, alleged that the department has negotiated generous salary and benefit increases with employee unions. Those benefits were approved by the county Board of Supervisors.

The foreman of the grand jury said Monday that the panel has been fair and thoughtful in its review of the department.

"We can't interview everybody. Otherwise, our whole term will be spent interviewing all the people [who want to be heard]," said Carlos N. Olvera.

"We looked at the letters. If we think ... they can provide us some information, then we would talk to them."

Jan Walden, an assistant county executive officer who oversees the Office of Human Resources, declined to discuss the grand jury report.

But she said the benefit increases assailed by the grand jury were requested by managers looking to reward productivity and were approved by the Board of Supervisors.

She said a program that rewards many employees with 2% bonuses for meeting performance goals -- approved by the board of supervisors in 1999 -- has been widely praised and is considered a nationwide model.

The grand jury questioned whether the $15-million-a-year program was worthwhile because more than 95% of employees receive the bonuses.

"I do believe that there is value in having an effective performance management program," Walden said.

Orange County Treasurer-Tax Collector John M.W. Moorlach said the human resources department is not solely responsible.

"The board approved these changes," Moorlach said. On some issues, "they heard complaints from a lot of us, but they went right on with what the [human resources] office recommended."

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