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O.C. Negotiator Who Lunched With Union Official Is Dismissed

September 16, 2006|Christian Berthelsen | Times Staff Writer

Orange County has dismissed its chief labor negotiator, after months of internal tumult over a pact she negotiated and several weeks after a county supervisor saw her having a champagne lunch with a top official from the sheriff's deputies union.

After repeated inquiries in recent weeks, the county on Friday issued a statement to The Times saying that Dianna Garcia, director of human resources and employee relations, would be leaving her position at month's end. The statement from Thomas G. Mauk, the county's chief executive officer, gave no reason for her departure.

Garcia said Mauk told her that Supervisor Chris Norby, who saw her at the lunch, "has been gunning for me." She declined to comment further, citing the advice of counsel.

Mauk denied telling Garcia that Norby was out to get her and said he made the decision on his own. Said Norby: "I'm not gunning for anybody.... Let's just say that the CEO has made his decision based on a totality of circumstances, which he knows about." He declined to elaborate.

Garcia's status had been in question; three weeks ago, Mauk took over her negotiating duties. Still, as recently as Thursday night, county officials and Garcia denied she was leaving her job.

Garcia began working for the county in April 2005. As the head of employee relations, she was primarily responsible for representing the county in negotiations with employee unions. During her tenure, the main pact she negotiated was a one-year 4.75% raise for rank-and-file employees.

Supervisors were critical of the deal when she brought it to them three or four months ago and told her to renegotiate, an order she initially refused to carry out, according to someone familiar with the negotiations. When the deal came back to supervisors again in late July, they hesitated to approve it amid criticism that the contract was one-sided.

"I would say that board members had concerns about our negotiations," Supervisor Jim Silva said Friday. He declined to comment further, citing personnel concerns.

About that time, Norby saw Garcia and Bob McCleod, general manager of the Assn. of Orange County Sheriff's Deputies, having champagne over a meal at Ambrosia, a new downtown Santa Ana restaurant that features a lounge act during the lunch hour.

Some county officials said that the appearance seemed inappropriate, given that the county was about to begin negotiations with the deputies union.

Not long after the lunch, Mauk took over Garcia's negotiating duties, and the county wrested concessions -- reductions in health benefits for retired county workers -- in exchange for the employee raises. Supervisors approved that pact Tuesday.

"I hate to see her go," McCleod said Friday, "especially in the middle of negotiations for a new contract.... I hope that it's not true that her having lunch with me" contributed to her dismissal, he said. "If it was that, it's patently ridiculous."



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