As the county turns
Government Butte County style gets weirder by the week
Lately, life in the county administration building has taken on the trappings of a soap opera. There’s drama, mystery, deceit and even a little bit of scandal.
Will Interim Chief Administrative Officer Larry Odle keep his job after his contract expires?
What’s going to happen to Helen Harberts, now that she’s leaving the Probation Department amid a flurry of speculation about her contract?
Is it possible that Sheriff Scott Mackenzie used department-rented helicopters to flit about the county in 1999? Why did his department spend upward of $50,000 that year to rent helicopters when it has two of its own?
Will 5th District Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi be recalled?
And if attorney Chuck Bell is such a legal eagle at litigating political cases (he’s the “expert elections” lawyer who represented three Board of Supervisors members in the redistricting saga late last year), why was he fined $6,000 last week for, ahem, failing to report contributions to the now-defunct Assembly Republican Leadership Fund?
Stay tuned, because it looks like one heck of a year is ahead for Butte County—and we’re only three weeks into it.
Political turmoil at county government headquarters is nothing new, of course. The county has been wracked with political squabbling for months. But lately, much of that squabbling is internal, and with the March 5 election rapidly approaching, things are only going to get hotter.
Item by item, here’s what’s happening in the ongoing saga of Butte County’s government:
Former Chief Probation Officer Helen Harberts agreed to drop two stress-related claims against the county this week in exchange for voluntarily leaving her post. This was a long time coming—Harberts has been on a nebulous “administrative leave” since spring, after a series of complaints from her employees about her “heavy-handed” management style.
The county spent a hefty $25,000 for an outside firm to study her department in her absence and interview dozens of her employees. Apparently, the firm recommended that Harberts leave.
The deal she brokered to leave without litigation is confidential, but one county government source said of it that she “needs new struts on her truck to haul away all the gold she’s getting from the county.”
Harberts could not be reached for comment, but her deal doesn’t leave her without a job, either. District Attorney Mike Ramsey confirmed that, come July, Harberts would start work once again as a deputy district attorney.
He called Harberts a “crackerjack trial attorney” and said he’s thrilled to welcome her back to the department. Harberts worked as a deputy DA from 1986 to 1995, when she left to take over the Probation Department.
With just six weeks until the March 5 election, sheriff candidate Perry Reniff released documents Tuesday that he says prove that his opponent, Mackenzie, has wasted thousands of dollars renting unneeded helicopters.
The documents show that the Sheriff’s Department spent more than $50,000 in 1999 to rent several helicopters from PJ Helicopters, a Red Bluff company for which one of Mackenzie’s part-time deputies, Ron Chaplin, flies.
Trouble is, Reniff points out, the department already owns two helicopters of its own. So why, he asks, does the county have to rent them?
Reniff, who was assistant sheriff under former Sheriff Mick Grey, said that the entire helicopter rental process, as it works in Mackenzie’s administration, stinks. Reniff approved all helicopter rentals prior to January 1999, when Chaplin took over, he said. But as soon as Chaplin came on board, Reniff said Chaplin directed the rental invoices around him, with Mackenzie’s approval.
Invoices filed with the Auditor-Controller’s Office are indeed different from the (supposed) carbon copies filed at the Sheriff’s Department. In the “notes” section of the invoices filed with the sheriff’s office, the reason for the rentals (things like “routine river patrol,” “marijuana recon” and “county patrol") is listed, while the same invoices at the Controller’s Office have no such designation.
Reniff insists that’s proof that someone at the sheriff’s office used the rented helicopters irresponsibly and then filled in the invoice after it had been filed with the Controller’s Office, but Mackenzie said that’s just “hogwash.”
The two have been bitter rivals since Mackenzie beat Reniff for the sheriff’s job in 1998. Mackenzie said the department rented the helicopters legitimately, to fulfill contracts with the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and Drug Enforcement Agency to spot marijuana gardens and meth labs from the sky.
“This is 100 percent politically motivated,” Mackenzie said. “Mr. Reniff has nothing better to do than to try to find something wrong with us, and there’s nothing there.”
And with two other high-level management openings still to fill (chief probation officer and development services director), the Board of Supervisors can add yet another vacancy: chief administrative officer. Interim CAO Larry Odle, who took the job on a four-month contract in November, said this week that he’s just not interested in sticking around permanently.
When the board hires a permanent replacement, Odle said he will return to his regular job, as the director of the Air Quality Management District.
And Chuck Bell, the $275-an-hour lawyer hired last fall to represent three members of the Board of Supervisors in a suit over redistricting, submitted the “first of several” bills for his services. For just the month of November, Bell reported that he worked 79 hours on Butte County’s behalf. That adds up to $23,793, along with the $2,000 the county paid Bell as an advance.
Ironically, though, Bell, whom Yamaguchi described during one Board of Supervisors meeting last fall as “one of the finest legal minds in the country,” was fined $6,000 last week by the Fair Political Practices Committee. According to the FPPC, Bell (who’s also general counsel to the state Republican Party) failed to report contributions to the now-defunct Assembly Republican Leadership Fund.
Bell did not return phone calls for comment on the fine.