Friday, November 16 , 2018, 2:33 am | Fair 48º


County Formalizes At-Will Employee Policies After Firing of Deputy DA Josh Lynn

Grand Jury decides there was no violation involving his termination because no such written procedure or requirements existed

The Santa Barbara County Grand Jury has determined that the firing of Chief Trial Deputy Josh Lynn by the District Attorney’s Office did not violate the county’s at-will employee policies.

Its investigation was reported in a May 16 letter to county CEO Chandra Wallar by jury forewoman Kathryn McKee.

The jury received seven complaints about “a highly publicized termination of an at-will employee” and decided to look into it since former Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services employee Heidi Garcia won $431,000 in damages based on claims that she was fired and discriminated against by her supervisors.

Lynn had been promoted to chief trial deputy, an at-will employee position, under former DA Christie Stanley, who died of lung cancer in April 2010. He was fired by Acting District Attorney Ann Bramsen the week after losing the June 2010 election to District Attorney Joyce Dudley.

Bramsen said she had given Lynn one paid day off to ease the transition back into the office after vacation with Dudley as the new DA, but he had “twisted it in an inappropriate way that is negatively affecting the office.” No details were ever released, but Lynn was gone by the time Dudley was sworn in.

Under the law, at-will employees can be terminated for any reason or no reason at all, but people can’t be fired in a way that constitutes discrimination or a violation of state public policy.

In the letter, McKee wrote that the Grand Jury found that no county policy or procedure had been ignored or violated because no written policy exists, and department heads can independently terminate at-will employees. There was no requirement for consultation before firing someone, increasing the exposure of county taxpayers to lawsuits by at-will employees, McKee wrote.

In January 2011, according to the letter, the county implemented a written disciplinary action policy and trained department heads to reduce the county’s liability risk.

Now, departments must contact Human Resources, which then coordinates with County Counsel “as soon as it appears likely than an investigation could lead to serious disciplinary action.”

“This new written policy, particularly the requirement for consensus, is a significant improvement over previous practice,” the letter continues. “The officials responsible for this achievement are to be commended.”

The county has 145 at-will employees out of 3,800 total, according to interim Human Resources Director Jeri Muth.

She said there is no written at-will policy per se, but that Wallar wanted to formalize the protocol for coordinating all discipline, which has been in place for a few years.

“It actually strengthens the whole process and when we administer discipline, it’s defensible,” Muth said. “The partnership between the department with an issue, Human Resources and County Counsel is so they can work together to find the best option to deal with a situation.” 

Department heads were trained specifically for at-will employee-related discipline in March and April, and were encouraged to incorporate specific language about what “at-will” means into advertisements and offer letters.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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