Letters to the Bench: Contra Costa County

Posted on December 24, 2010

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A poll has been added to the bottom of this post-

New: Newsletter_0508– Contra Costa County newsletter denoting the return of the queen.

Sometimes camaraderie and class outlast and outclass evil and treachery. Such is the case with a group of employees who have self-labled themselves the R&F&PFSW’s of Contra Costa County Courts. And who are the R&F&PFSW’s of the Contra Costa County Court System? Concerned taxpaying citizens that dedicated a majority of their working lives who either retired or were severed from employment with the Contra County Courts. While many of them are under NDA’s, many others are not under NDA’s and as a result a river of information has flowed to the information reservoir we now know as Judicial Council Watcher. 🙂

So who are the R&F&PFSW’s and what does it stand for?

Retirees & Firees & Poor *uckers Still Working for the Contra Costa Courts.

I hear its rather a large group and if there is an opportunity for JCW pay for a pizza party in Contra Costa County for these conscientious citizens, then JCW is buying the pizza. Just give me a date, place and phone number and please keep the information flowing.

Below is a letter from a retiree to the bench officers of Contra Costa County. If there are other organizations in other counties such as the R&F&PFSW’s of Contra Costa County, JCW wishes to hear from you. Keep in mind that this letter is regarding Kiri Torre, who I am told is now the highest paid person in the entire judicial branch. Behold what your hard-earned taxpayer dollars paid for. Edited to add: The name alone sums up the current morale in the Contra Costa Courts since the tyrant took over. Poor *uckers still working there. Imagine having to work in a place so hostile you labled yourself as a poor *ucker still working there.

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Dana Terrill

Court Retiree

dynazel AT comcast dot net

(phone number removed, headers removed)

March 3, 2010

 Bench Officers

Superior Court of California

County of Contra Costa

 Re:  Concerns About Current Court Administration

 Dear Bench Officer:

 Some of you may remember me as the Court Human Resources Manager from 2000 to 2006, and some of you may remember me as the Richmond Court Administrator from 2006 to 2009.  If you know me, I think you’ll remember me as a manager committed to the efficient operation of the Court; and if you don’t remember me, I can tell you that I was a dedicated Court manager who earned my positions through hard work and deep caring for the Court and its operation.  I treat judges, staff and customers  with respect—I believe a respectful environment creates a comfortable and efficient workplace.  I don’t believe the actions of the current Court administration create such an environment any longer.

 Though I recently retired, I am very concerned about many of the recent administrative decisions in the Court, and my concern compels me to write this letter.  I’m troubled because I believe that the motivations of current administration are based more on self-promotion and self-preservation rather than what is best for the Court as an organization.  I’ve struggled with my decision to write this letter, having first considered a letter to the editor of our local paper, but decided it’s only fair to write to you first.  Since your focus is on justice in the courtrooms, I fear that much of what I’m about to write is unknown to you since you shouldn’t need to be concerned with administrative functions.  However, I believe many of the recent administrative decisions are under the guise of budget conditions, but are actually a strategy to rid the Court of those managers whose loyalty is/was “Court” focused as opposed to focused on subservience.  In other words, I’m concerned that the current direction for the Court is far from altruistic, and that justice no longer matters with regard to administrative decisions in this Court.

Below, I have listed my summary of concerns with explanations.  I’m hoping you will take the time to read my letter, but I realize that some of you will consider this letter to be inappropriate, and I respect that.  If you so believe, please quit reading now.  If you continue to read, please understand that my motivation is to expose what I consider to be injustices in an organization that is supposed to stand for fairness and justice.  I admit, this letter is borne out of frustration and helplessness.

1)      Elimination of executive managers and subsequent treatment of those managers.

Bill Darden, Lorie Rethage, Kathy Ridgeway and Paul Kunkel were all terminated with no notice—blindsided if you will.  These managers were/are reputable, high level officers having exhibited extreme loyalty to the Court over the years.  There was no reason to expect anything other than professionalism had they received notice of their lay-offs, yet they were treated as if enemies of the court.  Unionized staff are afforded notice when laid off for budget reasons, yet these high-ranking officers were afforded none.  They were blindsided; they were not allowed the option of demoting (and I know at least one of these officers would have welcomed that opportunity); they were escorted off property; they were not allowed to pack up their own offices (and, interestingly enough, several weeks after the termination, when I accompanied Mr. Kunkel to pack what was left of his belongings, I was initially denied entrance to the building!  What was that about?).  Before they were allowed in to pack their belongings, several of  their offices were “stripped” and only those belongings that were presumed to be their personal belongings were left behind for them to retrieve.  Several of the offices were posted “do not enter” in plain view of the employees these managers had previously supervised.

 What had these officers done, other than give their all to this organization, and what did they get in return?  Yes, I understand they each were offered a severance package, but I’m betting they much preferred to keep working and, barring that option, that they each preferred to be allowed to leave with dignity.  Instead, the conditions of their exits gave the impression they were criminals, that their terminations were based upon factors other than budget and that they were not to be trusted.

 I also have difficulty understanding how these managers were selected for termination, supposedly for budgetary reasons?  The people eliminated were some of the most senior managers in the Court.  For instance, Lorie Rethage was the most senior Deputy Executive Officer with over 28 years with the Court.  The two DEO’s who were retained by Ms. Torre were both junior to Ms. Rethage.  Paul Kunkel was terminated instead of his assistant, Jeff Renteria, despite the fact Mr. Kunkel had over 23 years service with the Court and County while Mr. Renteria has only worked for the Court for two years and his previous experience had been in the private sector which differs greatly from public.  Sure, eliminating Mr. Kunkel’s position provided greater salary savings than eliminating Mr. Renteria’s position, however the savings were largely offset by a promotion for Mr. Renteria the day after Mr. Kunkel was terminated.

I’ve read some of the reorganization memos that have gone out to staff since these terminations, and I am amazed when the phrase “succession planning” is used over and over again.  What kind of “succession planning” program includes casting away some of the most experienced managers?  I have always understood that succession planning programs are intended to retain and pass along the knowledge and expertise of senior staff.  How is this accomplished by purposely casting away the most senior employees?

In trying to make sense of these actions, I’m left feeling that the motivation is not to maintain the collective court knowledge, but to rid it of those officers who are leaders with analytical minds who will stand up for “doing the right thing” as opposed to blindly carrying out a questionable agenda.

2)      Sacrifices made by managers and staff while Executive Officer makes none.

Managers have given up a scheduled raise and have absorbed the duties of those managers who have retired or been terminated.  Staff have made concessions or faced layoffs, and likewise have absorbed the duties of those who have retired or been terminated.  Yet at a time when most people knew that future budget woes were inevitable, Kiri Torre was hired at a salary higher than any other Court Executive Officer in the entire state!  More than the salary at her last position in Santa Clara, more than Los Angeles, more than San Francisco, all much larger courts.  How can that be?  (See article published back in June, 2009 and note that the salary for Ms. Torre is not accurate in that article—her salary was/is actually $229,000 before benefits are added in:  http://www.sacbee.com/2009/06/24/1971723/placer-probe-prompts-review-of.html).

While I don’t have access to current salary schedules, I have not heard anything about Ms. Torre taking any cuts or making any monetary sacrifices.   If her salary were reduced to “industry standard,” I’m betting at least a couple of staff positions could be saved.  However, like I stated above, I don’t see similar sacrifices as demanded of others.

 3)      Termination of long-time employee/manager without just cause.

 Shortly after Lorie Rethage was terminated, one of her former subordinates, Michelle Stella, collected some personal items from Lorie’s office.  At Lorie’s suggestion, Michelle also disposed of some documents (drafts of performance evaluations, email printouts) that Lorie would have placed in confidential recycle or shredded herself had she continued working.  There was no reason for Ms. Stella to believe she was doing anything wrong, there was no reason to believe that Ms. Rethage or Ms. Stella were up to any nefarious purpose by disposing of the papers, and, in fact, they were not.  It was simply a matter of disposing of papers that were already intended for recycle and didn’t need to be in Lorie’s office for unauthorized review.

 Ms. Stella was a long-term Court employee, having started as a Student Worker in 1995 when she was still in high school.  She’d worked her way through the ranks and became a manager in 2007.  While working for the Court she attended college at night and obtained a BA degree.  She completed the California State University’s Judicial Administration program.  To the best of my knowledge she is the ONLY Contra Costa Court employee who has completed that program.  She had absolutely no discipline on record, not even a counseling memo.  In short, she’d been an exemplary employee for her entire Court career.

Yet, when Administration got wind that Michelle had disposed of Ms. Rethage’s recycling, they conducted an investigation that included the time-consuming task of taping back together the documents that had been shredded.  Despite the fact there was no smoking gun (the documents were just recycling as the shred-taping proved), Ms. Stella was issued termination papers.  Michelle Stella was a rising star and she was the FACE of “Succession Planning” for the Court and now she is gone.

This action goes against all that I learned in my years as a Human Resources Analyst and Manager:  To terminate a long-term employee, especially one with no disciplinary history, the evidence must be overwhelming since terminating an employee is the equivalent of the death penalty from the perspective of Human Resources.  However, since Ms. Stella was a manager and not represented by a union, she did not have a “neutral” appeal recourse.  Her only appeal rights were to Ms. Torre.  After fourteen years of court service, Ms. Stella is out of a job.  How can this be considered just or fair?  Had Ms. Stella been in a union and this action gone to arbitration, it would never have been upheld.  How can this happen within an organization that stands for justice?

 4)      Termination of facility director.

 And now we have Jon Wintermeyer just terminated.  While I don’t know the circumstances of Mr. Wintermeyer’s “offense”, based upon the unfair treatment of Ms. Stella, I am concerned whether Mr. Wintermeyer is being treated fairly. 

 5)      Other recent retirements and resignations.

Could some of the recent retirements and resignations have been avoided if Court administration provided a respectful and nurturing place to work?  For example, I understand that a financial manager recently quit the court to take a job that pays significantly less than what she was making with the court.  Might some of the managers recently retired or planning to retire have stayed to share their knowledge if they were happy with the environment?

So I guess the next question might be:  What do I hope to accomplish with this letter?  Optimally, a reconsideration of the current administration.  If that is considered too drastic, then at least greater oversight of the current administration is needed.   

What about an oversight committee to review any actions concerning managers, primarily layoffs and discipline.  The oversight committee should receive input from objective sources, as well as the person who is the subject of the personnel action.  The committee should not rely solely on an explanation from those taking the action, as I believe facts can be and are “spun” if not checked.  If such a committee had been convened before disciplinary actions were taken against Ms. Stella and Mr. Wintermeyer, maybe those unfair actions could have been thwarted. 

I understand there may be valid concern about including judicial officers in an administrative process.  The oversight committee I’m suggesting need not be composed of judicial officers.  The committee could be composed of neutral persons, not affiliated with the Contra Costa Court.  The County has such a committee called the Merit Board that ensures that personnel actions (including personnel actions against County managers) have “merit,” and that they are not arbitrary, capricious, or based upon false or insufficient evidence. 

Bottom line:  I couldn’t just keep ignoring what I view as injustices and actions taken under the guise of budget.  I believe that Court operations used to run on respect and experience.  I believe it now just runs on fear.  I believe that all those at the top who were motivated for the good of Court are gone, and those motivated by their own agendas are what’s left.  Getting rid of anyone who is willing to express alternate opinions may be considered a good move for some, but it does not benefit the Court, and shouldn’t that be administration’s priority?  The Court has become a miserable place to work, and I can tell you I’m glad I retired when I did. 

If you’re still with me here, thank you for taking the time to read my concerns.  I like to leave you with a link to an article from the Harvard Business Review entitled “How to Be A Good Boss in a Bad Economy,” written by Robert I. Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University: (http://custom.hbsp.harvard.edu/b01/en/implicit/p.jhtml?login=SUTT052609S&pid=R0906E) 

It’s an article about how the head of an organization can make tough times less traumatic—information that the current Administration should take to heart.

Sincerely,

Dana Terrill

Court Retiree

Distribution:  All Bench Officers with Superior Court of California, County of Contra Costa

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12/28/2010 errata: The acronym for this organization is RF&PFSW was initially erroneously reported as R&F&PFSW.

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