Mendocino County management is an ongoing disaster. The turnover in management positions has been alarmingly high for several years, beginning with the still unexplained firing of Deputy CEO Alan Flora in 2017, senior officials have left under other than normal circumstances. (Rumor has it that it had to do with a dispute about the budget, hardly grounds for a no-notice firing, but…)
There was former Probation Chief Pam Markham, whose steamy office affair with one of her subordinates took months to resolve before she finally left, having been paid full management salary to stay at home for nearly a year while a stumbling “investigation” was conducted by the Superior Court and County Counsel’s office.
There have been several people who were put in charge of the pot program only to depart a few months later, two of whom are now departed Ag Commissioners.
Abrupt departures we know of just off-hand include Public Health Director Barbara Howe, Measure B Program Manager Alyson Bailey, Ag Commissioners Diane Curry and Harinder Grewal, Sheriff Tom Allman, Health and Human Services Director Tammy Moss Chandler, Human Resources Manager Heidi Dunham, Planning Chief Brent Schultz, County Counsel Kit Elliott, and on and on.
We've recently obtained a copy of the lawsuit filed by former Ag Commissioner Dr. Harinder Grewal in January 2020. His truncated Mendo tenure began in March of 2018. He lasted a little over a year before he was abruptly put on administrative leave in July of 2019 after which he was summarily terminated without so much as an explanatory press release. Another one disappeared.
Mr. Grewal came to Mendo after having been Sealer of Weights and Measures in Stanislaus County, arriving here with impressive qualifications that included masters and doctorate degrees from India and an American MBA. His appearances before the Supervisors were always professional in coat and tie.
Grewal ran into trouble from his Ag Department staff soon after taking the position.
According to his lawsuit’s opening paragraph (sworn to under penalty of perjury):
“Plaintiff [Grewal] suffered ongoing harassment by other county employees because of Plaintiff's national origin and religion. When he complained about the harassment to the County Management, he was ignored, then terminated.”
Grewal had worked at Stanislaus County’s Agriculture Department for fifteen years, receiving several promotions and even once running for state assembly as a Democrat.
“Prior to Dr. Grewal’s appointment, the Agriculture Department was in chaos,” his lawsuit states. “Required reports had not been filed for at least two years and employee morale was low and the local Farm Bureau had submitted complaints and concerns about the operation of the Mendocino County Agricultural Department and its ability to perform its mandated duties.
“In addition, the employees were permitted to come and go as they pleased; take time off without prior written approval as required by applicable county ordinances, rules, and Memorandum of Understanding with the various unions; failed to keep daily and weekly schedules; and failed to complete required forms in a timely manner.”
But Grewal, undoubtedly shocked at the work habits of the staff he'd inherited, worked with Human Resources to “establish rules related to work, such as being on time, notifying your supervisor if an employee was going to be late, having a plan for what was to be done each day, and completing reports accurately and in a timely manner.”
Ordinary work rules, you’d think, somehow interpreted by some of his staff as dictatorial.
But, “The employees were not happy about the new rules and resented the fact that a person born and raised in India, and a member of the Sikh religion, was in charge. During meetings some of the employees would ignore Dr. Grewal and some would make comments about his nationality and religion. These comments were often made behind Dr. Grewal’s back, as well as in front of him and other county employees, including Human Resources personnel, the Assistant Agriculture Commissioner [current Ag Commissioner Jim Donnelly] and others.”
Grewal names several Ag Department employees who exhibited discriminatory behavior, including “Kirk Van Patten (the retired CalFire Pilot who, with Supervisor Ted Williams, was a key proponent of Measure V which declared standing dead trees a nuisance/fire hazard), Matt Daugherty, Aaron Hult and Elizabeth Garcia. He also says Human Resources Director Heidi Dunham did nothing to stop the bad treatment he was subjected to.
Objecting to Dr. Grewal’s new office rules, Van Patten threatened “to complain to his good friend, County Supervisor Ted Williams, and file a complaint with the County’s Human Resources department.”
“When Dr. Grewal asked Mr. Van Patten about this Mr. Van Patten got angry and started yelling at Dr. Grewal and stated that it was because he was born in India that he was not flexible or compromising.”
“Ms. Elizabeth Garcia, a county employee who works in the Agriculture Department, told Dr. Grewal that they (Sikhs) are different people and don’t understand the culture/values here. Dr. Grewal disagreed with this statement and said that he was a US citizen just like her. Ms. Garcia rolled her eyes and made faces in a disrespectful way because Dr. Grewal disagreed with her view.”
Grewal met with HR Director Dunham on May 16, 2018, soon after taking his new Mendo position, to address his concerns.
“The Human Resources director laughed over it and said that the employee [Garcia] is a very difficult employee and that I should ignore her and focus on my job. I was disappointed at the Human Resources Director’s response and felt insulted. In any other county these racial comments would have been taken seriously and an investigation would have been conducted into my complaints. Unfortunately, that did not occur. A few days after the above described meeting I again met with the Human Resources Director and raised the issue. The Human Resources Director said that the employee is a “bitch” and that every department has a few difficult employees, and that I should just ignore her and focus on my work. The Human Resources Director’s answer was with arrogant attitude that felt like, Shut up, get back to work — she didn’t want to deal with it, didn’t have time for it. I felt that talking two times with the Human Resources Director was enough for a month old new Ag Commissioner.”
“Plaintiff brought the inappropriate actions and comments of Matt Daugherty, Elizabeth Garcia, Kirk Van Patten, Aaron Hult and other agriculture employees to Human Resources Director Heidi Dunham’s attention, as well as to the attention of the County CEO Carmel Angelo, however as far as Plaintiff knows, no investigation was undertaken nor were any employees disciplined in any way.”
Dr. Grewal eventually stopped mentioning these employee problems to Ms. Dunham because he “was concerned that if he continued to make complaints he would be terminated.”
“On or about December 4, 2018, Dr. Grewal received a two-step merit increase based on his outstanding performance as the Agricultural Commissioner for Mendocino County. He was also complimented during his performance evaluation for completing mandatory reports to the state that were past due at the time he was hired.
“On December 14, 2018 Plaintiff received a ‘Confidential Memorandum’ from the County’s Chief Executive Officer, Carmel Angelo. In the memo she states that the County had hired an outside investigator to investigate a complaint that Plaintiff treated ‘a female employee worse than you treated male employees.’ The Memorandum went on to state that the allegations were either unfounded or not sustained.”
To repeat for emphasis: the County itself determined that the complaint about Dr. Grewal’s treatment of women in his office was unfounded and unsustained.
Prior to a performance review for Dr. Grewal in June of 2019, however, Board Chair Carre Brown received a written complaint from Farm Bureau rep Scott Cratty alleging that “word is getting into the farmers market world that the AG Department’s functionality is in decline and that its current leadership is creating a hostile work environment for female employees.”
“Dr. Grewal was not informed of this complaint at any time, nor was it discussed with him during his performance review. … Dr. Grewal believes that the accusation that ‘the AG Department’s functionality is in decline and that its current leadership is creating a hostile work environment for female employees,’ was initiated by Elizabeth Garcia, who at the time was attempting to get Dr. Grewal fired because she was prejudiced against him because of his nationality and religion, and because he made her follow rules.”
“On June 18, 2019, after the closed session performance review, with very little explanation and without giving Dr. Grewal a chance to respond to comments and accusations regarding his performance, Dr. Grewal was placed on paid administrative leave.”
“On the day Dr. Grewal was placed on administrative leave, the Assistant Ag Commissioner, Jim Donnelly, met with several of the Ag Inspectors. During the meeting one inspector, Matt Daugherty, told Mr. Donnelly to change the door locks, stating that Dr. Grewal will come and shoot them and that Dr. Grewal is a violent person. Mr. Daugherty also told Mr. Donnelly that when Dr. Grewal was running for Assembly District 12, he beat up his wife. Mr. Daugherty also told Mr. Donnelly that Dr. Grewal was involved in a fight at his Sikh temple. Mr. Donnelly called Human Resources and spoke with Kao Saeturn and asked if locks need to be changed. Mr. Saeturn said there was no need to change the locks. However, shortly after that conversation occurred, Heidi Dunham called Mr. Donnelly and informed him that Matt Daugherty had called and requested the locks be changed. Ms. Dunham then instructed Mr. Donnelly to change the locks.”
“On July 10, 2019 Dr. Grewal was given a notice of termination by Board Chair Carre Brown. The notice of termination incorrectly described Dr. Grewal as an at-will employee and failed to provide him with a means to appeal the decision.”
Dr. Grewal had a signed a four year employment contract.
When we asked CEO Carmel Angelo about Dr. Grewal being put on administrative leave back at that time in 2019, CEO Angelo replied that she was referring our question to Ms. Dunham because “the Ag Commissioner does not report to me. Thank you.”
In fact, CEO Angelo isn’t mentioned as a defendant in Grewal’s lawsuit; instead he names all five Supervisors at the time (Carre Brown, John McCowen, Ted Williams, John Haschak and Dan Gjerde) as well as Dunham and the offending Ag Department employees.
Ms. Dunham refused to respond to our inquiry at that time also, saying simply that “it is a personnel matter.”
Grewal’s lawsuit was filed on January 23, 2020 and has appeared on several Supervisors closed session agendas since then with the usual “Direction was given to staff.”
So far that “direction” has cost Mendo taxpayers upwards of $350,000 — that’s right more than a third of a million dollars — in outside attorney costs at hundreds of dollars per hour paid to a toney San Francisco law firm, and that meter is still running.
The case is now scheduled for a settlement conference in September, and, if no settlement is reached, a preliminary hearing is set for next February and a trial in July (of 2022).