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Vote on county contracts reveals tension between supervisors

March 23, 2012

Fireworks erupted at Tuesday’s Mono County Board of Supervisors meeting, revealing long-simmering tensions between board members that ended with a 4-1 vote that showed a deep difference on how some county employees should be paid.

The brouhaha pitted bulldog-like District 1 Supervisor Larry Johnston (arguing for some salary caps and reductions) against an equally intractable board majority (arguing the employees in question had earned their pay).

A dismayed and divided District 4 Supervisor Tim Hansen verbally straddled the fence, but voted with the majority in the end.

“The pendulum has swung too far,” Johnston said, repeatedly, as the board considered a vote on three management level contracts that would consolidate several positions, saving about $500,000 according to the county.

“I have no qualms about the level of professionalism of the management team or their performance, but I do believe the board is out of touch with the reality of the economy and so are these contracts,” he said. He said he was elected to protect taxpayer money and this was one way he honored that charge.

But the majority of the board, Supervisors Byng Hunt, Vikki Bauer and Hap Hazard, said they were saving taxpayer money by consolidating the management positions and not hiring more people. “They are doing an amazing job,” Hunt said. Other supervisors noted that Mono County was in better fiscal condition than almost any other county in the state, due to its management team doing “the leg work” for the county.

Johnston persisted, using every tactic he could think of to push his point across. He made motion after motion to amend several contracts, motions that didn’t get a second (with one exception) and as such, died each time. He also said the agenda items were not complete and did not include the information he believed was necessary for the public to have for such a vote, a point which county counsel disagreed with.

He also objected to another agenda item that allowed five “at will” employees to have their contracts approved Tuesday “in aggregate” or all at once, rather than one at a time. Mono County has a larger number of at will employees than most counties in the state, after earlier boards of supervisors adopted policies that made hiring at will employees for positions such as deputy district attorney, assistant assessor, director of finance, etc., a priority. At will employees make more than union employees of the same position would overall, but they can be fired without cause, allowing the county to be more nimble in responding to underperforming employees.

Supervisor Hazard, who put the “aggregate” issue on the agenda, made it clear that the county had to give the employees noted six months advance notice, which was one reason he put the issue up at this time. He also said he did it so the board could get the issue out of the way all at once, instead of fighting over every contract for the next few months.

Chair of the board and District 3 Supervisor Vikki Bauer was especially frustrated with Johnston, as he repeatedly blocked vote after vote on the contracts with his motions. “Are you suggesting that … (I cannot) make amendments?” Johnston asked her at one point.

“I’m suggesting you are disrupting this meeting and I’m not good with that,” she said. She added that she believed there was a light at the end of the tunnel financially, for the county, and the county could afford to promote good people for taking on a huge amount of work.

But Johnston was not deterred. “…to approve contracts not due until November is unconscionable,” he said. “I do believe it is an attempt to halt my dissent.” He got some support from Supervisor Hansen, who said, “Larry has brought a lot of these issues up in closed session, and I agree with a lot of it, this is an attempt to shut him up … I think we should all work on these things that Larry is talking about because I don’t think there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

But nevertheless, Hansen didn’t vote with Johnston Tuesday, saying that his issues were with the policies that underlie the contract terms, not the employee contracts before the board that day.

“It isn’t fair to take it out on them,” he said. “We need better contract policies overall.”

“This has been going on a long time,” he said. He believes the tension visible Tuesday was affecting the board’s ability to get things done.

“I didn’t want to drag this kind of thing out every time a contract came up for the next six months,” he said.

The issue revealed tensions between some members of the public and the board’s handling of the situation as well. Tim Fesko, a candidate for the District 4 Supervisor’s seat that Hansen will vacate in December, issued an email “call to arms” earlier this week after he saw that the county intended to vote on five contracts all at once.

“If the board chooses to deal with all of these at one time, the public will only see these one time and won’t be reminded of these outrageous salaries and benefits for the rest of the year.”

He, too, added he was worried that if the county later found it could not afford the position, they would still have to pay for severance “even though (the employee) is not working.”

But the county fired back—and hard. First, said County Administrator Officer (CAO) Jim Arkens, the promotions leading to the consolidation of positions demonstrated in the contracts that Johnston opposed were actually saving the county money; a lot of it.

It’s a pattern of consolidating positions that Arkens has followed since he took on the CAO position last year and it has not always made him a popular man within the county, although the supervisors have supported him.

“I can guarantee I’m the only CAO/Director of Human Resources/Public Works Director in the state,” he said.  “I … have replaced the wages and benefits of three positions, saving Mono County $450,000 annually without affecting services to our public. The same can be said about Julie Tiede replacing Ann Gimpel’s salary and wages, Lynda Salcido saving the salary and benefits of the Emergency Management Services Chief, and Rita Sherman doing her job, plus saving the wages and benefits of our former engineer.

He also took issue with Johnston’s statement that Mono County’s management staff was being paid 5 percent more on average than the rest of the management staff in a 23 (rural California) county survey that Johnston quoted as a source supporting his beliefs that Mono County overpaid its management employees.

“Let’s compare apples to apples,” he said, noting that many of the positions now combined into one department head in Mono County don’t exist in the survey so it’s impossible to make a fair comparison between salaries.

He also addressed another issue that came up at the meeting; comparing union employees to higher paid but less secure at will employees. He said giving employees the promotions was no different that what the unions did when someone got a promotion.

He got some high level support when former CAO Dave Wilbrecht took the stand. Wilbrecht, now the town manager for Mammoth Lakes, spoke as a private citizen Tuesday. He all but said that one of the main reasons he left the county (last year) was due to the rising tensions on the board of supervisors after Johnston joined the board in January 2011.

“That’s the truth of it. People don’t want to work in places with these kind of tensions,” he said.

“Many of these people I hired,” he said. He added that he believed one of the main reasons Mono County was in such enviable fiscal shape, compared to almost any other county in the state, was due to its ability to recruit and retain such high-level employees.

“You have a benefit and employee compensation policy; work on that,” he said. “don’t take it out on the employees… fix the problem and move on … this approach will come back to haunt you,” he said.

The union versus not union employee issue simmered just underground during the entire meeting, even though no union issues were on the agenda. The Mammoth Times received several comments from union employees and others who had responded to Fesko’s email and who felt they had to make far too many sacrifices during negotiations compared to the management team’s sacrifices.

wendilyn@mammothtimes.com

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