Probation chief on mysterious ‘leave’

Chief Probation Officer Helen Harberts is on a four- to six-week administrative leave while her department undergoes an outside audit, Butte County announced this week.

Rumors that Harberts had been fired started flying last week, but at that time Chief Administrative Officer John Blacklock would say only that she was “on vacation.”

“She is out of the office, but she hasn’t been fired,” Blacklock said last week. “That’s just a rumor.”

This week, however, he acknowledged that Harberts has been on paid administrative leave since June 7, while an outside company studies the management and operations of her department. The decision to study the department, Blacklock said, came from several weeks’ worth of meetings between the courts and county administrators.

Harberts has led the probation department since 1995, when she was appointed to the post by a panel of judges. Prior to that, she worked as a deputy district attorney. She’s been a visible and accessible department head and led the county’s effort to build a new and much larger Juvenile Hall—a project that is now under construction.

But behind the scenes, Harberts has been the center of a flurry of complaints from her employees, said Rudy Jenkins, executive director of the Butte County Employees Association. He pointed out that the annual turnover rate at the Probation Department is more than four times above the generally accepted level, which is about 8 percent. The Probation Department’s rate, however, hovers at about 40 percent. And he acknowledged that in the 18 months he’s been leading the union, he’s received “more than a couple of grievances” from her former and current employees.

“It’s pretty bad over there,” Jenkins said. “I think that in the last six months, two people have just walked off the job.”

Two years after Harberts took the helm of the department, almost 75 percent of the rank-and-file employees gave her a vote of no confidence. Of the 28 of 41 probation officers responding, 71 percent had “no confidence” in Harberts’ ability to lead the department. Another 71 percent rated her “poor” in the area of honesty, as did 82 percent for fairness, 89 percent for consistency and 68 percent for integrity.

A few of the respondents also had positive things to say about their boss—among them, that her changes were for the good and that she’s not to blame for low morale.

When the survey was released, Harberts said some of her more complacent employees were simply upset about her “hard charging” leadership style.

“I think they want me fired,” Harberts said then. “Or they want me to change my mind and become very conciliatory… People who don’t get their way become very unhappy.”

Harberts could not be reached for comment Wednesday.