By: O.C. Supervisor Pat Bates
On May 8, the Grand Jury released a report titled “The Culture of Harassment: Change is on the Horizon,” and this week, the County of Orange issued its official response.
The report largely focuses on the widely reported sexual harassment case involving a senior County employee, which resulted in criminal charges. It makes a sweeping conclusion that a “culture” of tolerance for sexual harassment exists within Orange County government and implores County leadership to take action to improve its human resources function.
The report has been widely criticized for being imbalanced in its approach because, as a matter of fact, many of the recommendations mirror the recommendations made in the comprehensive performance audit of the Human Resources Department, which was completed by the Office of the Performance Audit Director back in 2011. The implementation by the Board of Supervisors of these recommendations has been underway since then.
When the Board of Supervisors was made aware in 2010 of the growing concern of employees regarding the lack of adherence to the County’s human resources policies, we asked our Performance Audit Director to conduct a comprehensive investigation of our HR Department and its operations and report back to the Board with recommendations for improvement. The Office of the Performance Audit Director was specifically created in 2008 by our Board to assist us in identifying inefficiencies within County government in order to make needed reforms.
The resulting Performance Audit identified a systemic problem within our Human Resources Department and yielded 50 findings and recommendations for reform. The Board took the report very seriously. For months following the release of the report, I, along with Supervisor Nelson, acting as a Board appointed ad-hoc committee, poured through the findings and recommendations and developed a plan of action to address all 50 recommendations. The plan was later adopted by the full Board for implementation in August 2011.
Since that time, the County has achieved far-reaching improvements in the area of human resources, including, but not limited to:
- Establishment of a Countywide Investigations and Compliance Oversight Committee (August 2012)
- Approval of additional funding and positions for the District Attorney’s Special Prosecutions/Special Assignments Units to establish a Public Integrity Team (September 2012)
- Revision of the County’s Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Policy and Procedure document (October 2012)
- Recentralization of Human Resources (Effective December 2012)
- Plans for EEO training for all County staff (to be completed by October 2013)
- Hiring of a new County EEO manager (February 2013)
- Development of an action plan specific to OC Public Works (November 2012)
- Provision of training on “Preventing Workplace Harassment, Discrimination and Retaliation” to over 250 OC Public Works Managers (April 2013)
Though the Grand Jury does acknowledge that positive change is occurring, the report downplays the County’s progress. In reality, the Board has made significant strides in initiating reforms, improving transparency and holding individuals accountable. That is why, when the Grand Jury released its report in May this year, I was a little confused by its timing. The report urges a call to action, when the issues identified in the report have already been and continue to be heavily responded to by the County.
In the County’s response to the Grand Jury report issued this week, we identified the report’s strengths. For example, it recognized the County’s efforts to expand its EEO and anti-harassment training and recognized the positive change brought about by the County’s return to a centralized Human Resource Department. We also identified the report’s weaknesses, such as its numerous omissions and inaccuracies. The report fails to recognize that those responsible for the investigative deficiencies are no longer employed by the County and important changes in top County leadership have occurred over the past 18 months that address many of the deficiencies noted by the Grand Jury.
The bottom line is when the Board identified the problem within our Human Resources Department in 2010, long before the Grand Jury report was released, we didn’t shy away from it. We demonstrated leadership and addressed it head on. We sent in our audit team to expose the severity of the problem and took immediate steps to correct it, including everything from structural changes to specific corrective actions against several individual employees. Ironically, it was through the Board’s own audit that many of the revelations of the sexual harassment case which is the focus of the Grand Jury report came to light.
Like any large bureaucracy, from time to time, departments will get lazy in implementing established protocols. As in any place of employment, from time to time, there will be employee scandals. The County of Orange is no different and has undoubtedly experienced its share of both. That is precisely why the Board of Supervisors, as elected representatives of the taxpayers, takes its job of providing oversight on behalf of the public so seriously. The Board’s track record speaks for itself. We have consistently demonstrated our commitment to self-examination, transparency, accountability, and reform and our response to the Grand Jury reflects that.
To view the Grand Jury report and the County’s official response the Board approved Tuesday, please click here.