Sunday, August 18, 2013

County Commission Muffs One

Maybe I should apologize for giving the Board of County Commissioners the benefit of the doubt regarding allegations of misconduct by county managers.

Some of those allegations won a unanimous jury verdict against the County in Granados.  Jurors found the County had created a hostile work environment for Mr. Granados, and ordered us to pay him $250,000 – plus his attorney fees.  This week the County lost its post-trial motions, and must now decide whether or not to appeal.  I’d guess that any appeal would merely delay the payoff and have us paying two sets of attorneys to argue arcane legal points.

It’s unlikely that an appeal would result in overturning the verdict.

Other allegations appear in complaints in several other lawsuits now headed toward trial. Serious findings appear in a 2010 Audit.  Other charges have been made to me privately, sometimes quite credibly.  I wasted substantial time sharing some of that information with the Commissioners on the lunatic hope that they had some sincere interest in doing the right thing.

Actually, I still think they did.

My first reaction to Tuesday’s “Memorandum” urging sainthood for Sue Padilla was that someone has been secretly remaking Invasion of the Body Snatchers here in Doña Ana County.  (Either that or Commissioners were stealing my pain-killers while I recuperated.)  People who had spoken movingly of their hope to do the right thing then signed onto a whitewash.   Did the Commissioners get intimidated or get conned or just figure to leave it for the next county manager to clean up?

I don’t like writing this.  I have tremendous respect for Billy Garrett, and also great affection.   He’s a smart guy with good ideas and the County’s interest at heart; but if you’ll forgive me another silly analogy, he reminds me of the Tarot card that pictures a happy idealist wandering off a cliff.   He may be so intent on dealing with the serious problems and opportunities facing the County that he can’t force himself to look squarely at the internal problems alleged – like a guy so obsessed with getting where he’s going that he forgets to make sure his car has oil.

So what happened?  Maybe someone sold the Commissioners on the idea that the County’s chance of success in the upcoming trials hinges on the appearance that they unanimously believe that the jurors in Granados blew it.  That’s a reasonable position, though I’m not sure it’s the right one.  In effect, the Commission is circling the wagons – despite the cost to internal morale.  This could also hinder clear analysis of settlement possibilities in pending cases.

Their written statement seems to say that the County’s lawyers blew it.  They say that at the Granados trial the bad things said about Interim County Manager Sue Padilla were not rebutted.  Well, lawyers got paid $150 per hour or so to present such rebuttal.  I thought the lawyers tried hard to do so.  Therefore I have some difficulty understanding the Commissioners’ “Memorandum.” on this point.  There was “little testimony offered to dispute the negative characterizations of senior county managers”?  Well, either the lawyers missed it, and should be fired, or there really wasn’t much credible testimony of that sort to be had, in which case the Commission shouldn’t issue a Memorandum impugning the jurors or the court.  And since I didn’t see any Commissioners at trial, except one who testified briefly, how do they know what witnesses did and didn’t say?

The Commission thinks it’s “unfortunate” that there’s a “suspicion that some County managers may be unprofessional and vindictive”?  Well, it is unfortunate.  Trial testimony strongly indicated that such suspicion might be well-founded.  The Commissioners had a chance to do something about it: a truly independent investigation, not one run through the County Counsel’s Office.  They chose instead to rely on a report that some or all of them knew to be tainted and to make a strong statement that the jurors and the complaining former employees (many of whom are not plaintiffs in lawsuits) were all wrong.   Excuse me, but doesn’t the Commission’s conduct guarantee that suspicions will linger?

The Commission is concerned that “a second supposition is that poor employee performance and bad behavior will be tolerated because of the Granados verdict.”  Well, yeah.  The Commission has one employee, Sue Padilla.  Extensive sworn testimony to her poor performance will cost the county more than half a million bucks once it’s all added up; and the Commission is tolerating it.

Writing this column I feel a deep but vague sort of sadness.  Of course I empathize with present and former county employees who, when the Commission responded to Granados with an appearance of openness to face facts, felt unexpected hope things might improve.  Sure, I regret wasting substantial time trying, within the limits of journalistic confidentiality of sources, to share information with the Commission.  Yet neither explains quite why I feel so personally sad.

Above all, I feel sad for the Commissioners.  Barring the Body Snatchers explanation, some of them got conned or intimidated into a statement that ran against what they knew and felt.  That can’t feel good.

And I sympathize.  Commissioners were in a tough position – and getting advice from folks whom trial testimony tended to implicate in the problems they were deciding how to handle.  Me, I think they jumped the wrong way.


[The column above appeared this morning -- Sunday, 18 August -- in the Las Cruces Sun-News. Or at least, I'm told it did. I haven't yet seen my copy of the paper this morning.  I know the column appeared because I received a comment: 
"Your column made me cry actually. But, then again, after all they have put me through, I cry easily now. I have worked a lot of places in my lifetime but DAC has some wonderful and very capable employees. I guess what sets them apart to me from my past experience is that most of them "have a heart." You will hear them say things like, "what our constituents would like to see..." I have never heard a word about constituents from the top tier mind you, but definitely from clerks downstairs to the custodians to those filling our potholes. Many of them know who they work for (the constituents) and take pride in that trust placed with them. They don't take it for granted as I have seen in so many government settings in my life. As I have said countless times now, they deserve so much better."
They do.  I think things will improve in the foreseeable future, despite my disappointment with the commission's conduct described in the column.]

No comments:

Post a Comment