Former probation chief gets close to $100k settling suit against county
Remember Helen Harberts?
She used to run the county Probation Department. In June of last year, she was placed on administrative leave after several employees voiced complaints about her management style. The county spent $40,000 auditing the department, and in the end Harberts was asked to resign.
But Harberts, the former chief deputy district attorney for criminal matters in Butte County, didn’t take the county’s actions lying down. She threatened to sue for wrongful termination and stress-related disability.
The tactic seems to have worked, because at the end of January Harberts, a self-described “hard-charger,” reached a settlement with the county and courts that will let her keep all of her department-head-level benefits and entitlements while doing what she loves to do—practice law in a courtroom.
“I can’t wait to get my hands on an old-fashioned case,” she said Tuesday.
In exchange for dropping her litigation, Harberts will continue to bank until this July the $92,460 she earned annually as chief probation officer. She will also get the full benefits, vacation and sick time—worth roughly $90,000, according to county officials, though Harberts said it was more like $113,000—she would have received had she been able to stay on the job. Not only that, but she will return to the District Attorney’s Office, where she will paid about $70,000 a year as assistant DA, a position that is being hauled out of storage specifically for her.
Harberts said she was extremely pleased with the settlement. Though she was somewhat cavalier, even at times boastful, about her legal team’s prowess in negotiating the settlement, she added that dealing with the county had almost ruined her health.
“I basically collapsed,” she said Tuesday. “My ability to get things done simply ended. I was no longer sleeping, I was getting chest pains. It became very clear that no amount of work could get done what the county wanted to have done, with the resources they made available.”
Harberts was appointed to the department in 1995 by a panel of judges. During her tenure, she was given a no-confidence vote by the vast majority of surveyed department employees, who said she had a tendency to play favorites and lacked integrity. Harberts responded at the time that those voicing concerns were just resistant to changes she was trying to make in the department.
Rebuffing the notion that she was run out of the department, Harberts said she was proud of what she had accomplished there, even in the face of what she called “regressive” and short-sighted county policies.
“I think they got quite a lot of bang for their buck,” she said, listing achievements such as getting the department a new headquarters, starting construction on a new Juvenile Hall, doubling the size of the department, and creating the first Butte County Drug Court system, which she defined as her most significant accomplishment.
“I want that to be my legacy, that I got 350 people off drugs that aren’t coming back,” she said.
Harberts said that her nearly seven-year stint at the Probation Department convinced her that the county, under its current leadership, is in serious trouble.
“You’d have to be a fool to be an appointed head in Butte County right now, and I’m no fool,” she said. “What can you say about a county that has half of their appointed positions run by interim managers? The culture is just frightening.”
County Counsel Bruce Alpert said settling with Harberts was definitely the cheapest solution for the county.
“I would call it a good deal for everyone. She gets something, but she basically has to work for it,” Alpert said.
Harberts’ new role at the District Attorney’s Office is said to be working in the Drug Court, which will likely put her in daily contact with her former colleagues at the Probation Department.