SANTA ANA – Rampant infighting, ineffective leadership and aging computer systems have created poor morale at the public administrator and public guardian offices, according to a report released Monday by the Orange County Grand Jury.
The watchdog agency focused on how splitting up the offices of the public guardian, which handles the welfare of county residents unable to take care of their own needs, and the public administrator, which manages estates of those who die without a will, has impacted the embattled departments.
Until 2014, an elected public administrator oversaw both agencies. After two scathing grand jury reports and a multimillion-dollar lawsuit, the Orange County Board of Supervisors split up the agencies, with the public guardian office becoming part of the county healthcare agency and the public administrator duties being turned over to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.
The grand jury determined that workers in the public guardian office have been the hardest hit, describing themselves as the “stepchildren of the Healthcare Agency,” left to fend with “increased red tape, a reduction in basic office equipment, and a neglected workforce.”
Vacant positions have been left unfilled, a “pressure cooker” atmosphere has prevailed and workers are reliant on aging software, the grand jury says.
Officials with the Orange County Healthcare Agency said they had just received the grand jury report and were still reviewing it.
“Preliminary review suggests that there are findings that we agree with and are already addressing,” said Rachel Sellack, a spokeswoman for the agency.
“In addition, there are findings that we are in partial agreement with and some that we disagree with,” she said. “(The healthcare agency) will be forming a working group to review and respond to this report through the Board of Supervisors as well as to take appropriate actions to improve the operations of our public guardian office.”
By contrast, the grand jury acknowledged that the public administrator employees have “fared much better” since the split, but contended that they “did not escape unscathed.”
“Staff morale was adversely affected by the hiring of people who had a known relationship with top district attorney officials,” the grand jury report says of the public administrator office.
Officials with the D.A.’s Office disputed the grand jury’s findings. A statement released Monday said “big strides” had been made, and there’s been a reduction in a large backlog of cases since the office took over the public administrator’s duties. A “toxic culture” was rehabilitated through “fresh ideas and private business acumen.”
“The public administrator is now run efficiently and is known to go above and beyond, even on occasion taking home a beloved family pet left behind until a decedent’s next of kin or forever home can be located,” the statement says.
The grand jury investigation, however, found that new employees at the public administrator’s office with personal ties to D.A.’s Office officials were quickly hired and moved up the ranks without traditional training.
In their statement on Monday, D.A.’s Office officials blamed the allegations raised in the grand jury report on “disgruntled staff that went through the transition of the public administrator to the Orange County (District Attorney’s Office).”
D.A.’s Office officials also said that interviews with senior management staff who oversee the public administrator employees were not included in the grand jury report.
Among the two dozen recommendations included in the grand jury report is better communication and training within the two agencies, the adoption of a new electronic case management system, and the creation of a more formal process to hire qualified workers for the public administrator’s office.
May 23, 2016
The Orange County Register
By Sean Emery