Tulare County supervisors rescind secret pay raise after newspaper expose

A secret decision last September by the Tulare County Board of Supervisors to raise its own pay generated angry public reaction after it was revealed in January. This week the board reversed itself, the Visalia Times-Delta reported. – DR

Board of Supervisors rescinds raises
Supervisors vote to make pay-increase process more public
BY VALERIE GIBBONS • vgibbons@visalia.gannett.com • February 11, 2009

Tulare County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to rescind its controversial 4.56 percent pay raise due to go into effect in March.

Supervisors also voted to make it no longer possible to give themselves a pay raise without making it public in advance.

The moves came at the end of a highly charged meeting attended by a crowd of county employees, union representatives and citizens who sharply criticized the board for secretly taking a pay increase in light of hundreds of layoffs of county employees.

‘There was no conspiracy here’

It was a stark reversal of the position the supervisors took two weeks ago when they insisted the Sept. 30 vote that raised their salaries was open and above board and threatened to rescind raises they granted to all county employees last year. At the same time, however, two supervisors — Pete Vander Poel and Mike Ennis — said they would not accept the raise.

Even Tuesday, some of the supervisors continued to insist that they had not intended to mislead the public or conceal their salary increase.

“There was no conspiracy here,” said Phil Cox, the Board of Supervisors chairman. “There was no attempt to mislead the public.”

The decision comes nearly a month after public disclosure that the supervisors had voted themselves a pay raise 3 1/2 months earlier.

That news generated scores of angry e-mails and phone calls to board members and their staff.

“We understand that this issue has become emotionally charged in recent weeks,” said Jean Rousseau, the county’s administrative officer. “It’s been hard for me, and my staff, to deal with this.”

Rousseau also denied his office used cryptic language to conceal the raises.

“That’s anything but the truth,” he said.

The agenda listing for the vote that led to the supervisors’ salary hike said simply, “Approve changes for employees in Units 9, 10, 11, 19, 20 and 21.” It was placed in a part of the agenda generally used for day-to-day items such as accepting grants or drafting resolutions. Items are voted on as a group, rather than taken individually.

On Sept. 30, the raises were lumped in with 19 other items, including a proposal to cancel a meeting in December and an item dealing with renewal of the county’s e-mail software licenses.

On Tuesday, Rousseau said first that the wording of the item that granted raises and benefit changes to the county’s elected officials — and by default, the board — was selected to make it grammatically correct.

Then Rousseau took responsibility for the controversy.

“In hindsight, I may have done things differently,” he said.

Rousseau then offered a presentation detailing the dozens of the boards and commissions upon which the supervisors serve.

“They didn’t know I was going to do this,” Rousseau told the audience. “They’re seeing this for the first time.”

He said a comparison of the salary numbers that the board earns in comparison with other counties wouldn’t be complete without looking at their level of involvement in the community.

“These folks are busy six to seven days a week,” he said. “They work their tails off.”

The comparison left at least one audience member, Chris Unti, flat.

“Everybody in this county does a lot of work — some of it at $8 an hour,” he told the board. “This is your job. I’m sorry you’re not paid as much as Fresno County, but it’s not right taking a raise. It’s not being a leader.”

County employees

The timing of the board’s raise has been a particular problem for county officials.

It came two weeks after the county imposed a contract on workers with the Service Employees International Union and while the county was still at an impasse with the union that represents 105 of its attorneys.

The board also voted on its raise a week before a one-day walkout by SEIU.

In the end, all but two employee groups — both representing workers with the Tulare County sheriff’s office — ended up with average salary increases that were smaller than the board’s own.

SEIU officials presented the board with what they said was a petition with hundreds of signatures from employees and county residents asking them to decline their raise.

“We are asking that you do the right thing and waive the raise,” said Kit DeYoung.

The supervisors defended their decision to grant the raises to the elected officials and support staff that ended up increasing their own pay.

“You make the best decision you can with the information you have at hand,” Supervisor Steve Worthley said.

Supervisor Allen Ishida pointed to the state’s skyrocketing budget deficit and predicted that more layoffs may be in the future for the county.

He steered clear of stating his own stance on the raises.

“I don’t see how government can survive without downsizing itself,” he said. “There may not be any pay raises for a couple of years.”

That statement was echoed by Rousseau, who said he would not have proposed any of the raises put into effect last year had he known the state’s budget problems would soon gouge millions from his own budget.

“We’ll probably have to look at taking some of that back,” he said.

Stephen Prekoski, the head of the union that represents 105 of the county’s public defenders and attorneys, bristled at the idea that those who had contracts with the county might be asked to agree to pay cuts.

“We went through a long, difficult process to negotiate that contract,” he said. “We richly deserve the raises we negotiated this year. I’m not giving that salary back. I’m not giving my raise back.

“You haven’t asked, but the answer is no.”