Tuesday Jul 28 2009
Uhler appointment raising concerns
By: Jon Brines, Journal correspondent
It erodes public trust, union officials say about naming supervisor’s wife to county management position
Allegations of a conflict of interest, a violation of public trust, unfairness in the Placer County hiring process and even nepotism surround the recent appointment of a county supervisor’s wife to a management position. While wrongdoing has not been identified by an official investigative body, the move has raised concerns from citizens and county union leaders who are calling for action. The relatively high-paying position was not advertised and the position had been vacant for two years. Tami Uhler, wife of Placer County Supervisor Kirk Uhler, was appointed to the assistant director of the Placer County Department of Child Support Services July 7 with a starting salary of $92,000 plus benefits, according to county officials. Supervisor Uhler, who represents the Granite Bay area, said his wife’s recent appointment is completely legitimate. “I reject the premise of a conflict of interest,” said Kirk Uhler. “To the extent that county counsel would advise that there is a conflict present — I would absolutely recuse myself.” Chuck Thiel, spokesman for the Placer Public Employees Union, said issues surrounding the appointment are eroding public trust. “A lot of employees are upset about this,” Thiel said. “Considering who she is — there is no transparency in this at all. Public trust is huge.” Just because Supervisor Uhler has the potential to vote on an item that involves his wife’s department doesn’t constitute a conflict of interest until he acts, according to the California Fair Political Practices Commission. Uhler said concerned citizens need a fair evaluation of the facts surrounding his wife’s appointment. “She was recruited by a former colleague for whom she worked,” Uhler said. That colleague, Troy Held, the hiring manager and the director of the department said he worked with Tami Uhler 10 years ago when she was a Placer County assistant district attorney. “I’ve known Tami for many years and she is a hard worker, very intelligent, former prosecutor — very good at it,” Held said. “I trust her.” Held said the position was frozen for the last two years before being reopened. He acknowledged the opening was not advertised and all of the three candidates for the job were former colleagues of his. “Since it is up to the department head, it’s people I can choose,” Held said. Thiel said this hiring practice is unfair. “Do you gift jobs or do you open recruitment to evaluate all possible applicants so you can get the best person for the job?” Thiel said. “You might have found someone who was better than her. We’ll never know.” According to the county’s Civil Service Commission Web site, the commission was created in 1961 … “for the purpose of obtaining the highest efficiency and assuring that the best qualified persons available shall be brought into the service of the County.” However, the commission does allow the appointment of unclassified management positions without an exam or other process used to fill other county positions, according to county personnel officials. To muddy the water further, Thiel said County CEO Tom Miller, who was appointed by the Board of Supervisors, approved her appointment. “Mrs. Uhler is married to a public official who appointed the person that hired her,” Thiel said. “This wasn’t supposed to happen. It is a clear violation of the rules. This violates the county nepotism code.” According to personnel officials, the appointment does not violate county nepotism rules because Kirk Uhler is not her direct supervisor According to the California Fair Political Practices Commission, which governs fines and other civil penalties for political conflicts of interests, state law does not prohibit Tami Uhler from seeking a public position just because her spouse holds another public position. Supervisor Kirk Uhler said his wife’s intentions to go back to work were honorable after she put her career on hold for a decade to raise their children. “I am perplexed as to why this would cause people concern,” Uhler said. “(But) I can absolutely see why people without the full grasp of the facts surrounding my wife’s employment would raise their eyebrows.” Over the past two years the county’s financial troubles have restricted hiring, and critical positions have been filled only as vacancies occur. But the Department of Child Support Services is funded primarily from federal and state funds. The recent state budget compromise secured funding for the Department of Child Support Services and revenue stabilization funds allowed Held to expand the department. “A lot of folks down at the Capitol have a lot of faith in the program and see it as a way of recovering money,” Held said. Part of Tami Uhler’s new job is to help establish court orders to recover public assistance from non-custodial parents. Thiel said county taxpayers would be affected by this hiring decision. “Workers do one furlough day a month to save the county money,” Thiel said. “If 99 percent of the funding comes from outside and hiring of this position is not a budget issue why are County Child Support Services workers on work furloughs? We could have got two positions on what they are spending on this position.” Concerned Auburn resident Rick Menkick said more transparency and fairness will restore public trust in county leadership. “Uhler is just playing semantics,” Menkick said. “I think we need to get those guys working for us again, not for themselves. If that means changing (civil service) rules so everyone has a fair shot to get in there, so be it.” Supervisor Uhler said he doesn’t agree with changing civil service rules, which he said would further restrict managers from hiring whomever they want. “If they had hired my neighbor you wouldn’t have any concern about the rules,” Kirk Uhler said. “The rules are OK for everyone else but once they apply to me and my wife then it should be changed. The rules are fine for the decades that we have had civil service in place.” Uhler said in 1995 he spearheaded a ballot initiative to disband the civil service commission but failed. Tami Uhler and Tom Miller did not return phone calls seeking comment for this article.