(SAN BERNARDINO) In November 2009, when members of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to terminate County Administrative Officer Mark Uffer without cause, which provided him with an additional year of salary and benefits, they thought they were avoiding a legal hassle. Instead, we learned this week that they opened a costly can of worms that has now cost taxpayers an additional $782,452.20 on top of the $323,000 severance package.
As early as 2008, at least one member of the Board of Supervisors indicated he wanted to terminate Uffer’s contract and replace him with then-Ontario City Manager Greg Devereaux. Fourth District Supervisor Gary Ovitt was a close friend to Devereaux and worked with him when he was mayor and as a member of the Ontario City Council. However, the three votes to replace Uffer with Devereaux did not materialize until October 2009.
In 2008, the first of numerous arrests of high-ranking county officials was made. By 2009, the corruption scandal had clearly touched the Board of Supervisors with the arrest of Third District Chief of Staff Jim Erwin. Several other board staffers were subpoenaed to testify before the Grand Jury and were also interrogated by the District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit. The investigation has been far reaching with three members of the Board having now been charged criminally and at least two others possibly facing charges in the future. Two chiefs of staff have also been charged and one is working as an informant with the District Attorney’s office.
Board staff knew that Uffer was not necessarily loyal to some Board offices. It became most apparent when information regarding possible wrongdoing in a 1200-acre land deal was leaked to the District Attorney, information that the Board had attempted to keep under wraps.
Upon his termination, Mark Uffer did not go away quietly. In May 2010, Uffer hired Sanford “Sandy” Kassel to represent him and filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit, alleging among other things that he was terminated for cooperating with authorities.
County attorneys have vigorously defended the lawsuit, hiring a high-priced outside firm to handle much of the legal work. The county was successful in getting some of the causes of action dismissed; however, their most recent motion for summary judgment to dismiss the whistleblowing allegation was met with a 21-page ruling from Judge Donald Alvarez that handed the county a major defeat despite having four attorneys present in court to argue on behalf of the county. The ruling was blunt and strongly worded against the county. To put it in one attorney’s words, “Sandy killed them.”
The county has pulled out all the stops to defeat Uffer, including flying an attorney down from Oakland to represent it. The county has placed no lid on the cost of this litigation, which ultimately is paid for by the taxpayers. When asked for an explanation, Chairman of the Board Josie Gonzales did not return the request.
Kassel offered this insight into the case,“We will continue to press forward with the knowledge that those in County Council and certain Board Offices were aware of Mr. Uffer`s cooperation with the authorities. Hiding behind alleged Closed Session discussions has been the framework for some members of the Board of Supervisors to hide their knowledge of what was shared about various misdeeds reported.
“Not only will the public be privy to what occurred prior to Mr. Uffer`s termination and subsequently in his employment attempts, the County will be exposed to more negative publicity at a time when our County Government truly needs to improve their image and public accountability. That negative public awareness of the wrongdoing propagated by those already exposed in recent months will unfortunately cost the County significantly more in unnecessary litigation costs than what has already been expended.
“The public and many County employees are deeply disturbed by this reckless behavior at a time when jobs are being lost and budgets are tight. It won’t become real until the County sees the impact of what a reasonable jury will decide relative to an employee`s right to report public corruption without fear of retaliation and what occurs when people are fired for “no cause” and subjected to adverse employment actions, including deliberate attempts to stop Mr. Uffer`s employment after leaving the County.”
The case is set for trial beginning February 27, 2012. Insiders believe that the county will offer to settle because members of the Board of Supervisors do not want to be called as witnesses in a public trial, especially since three of them are up for re-election. They also insist that the actual dollar amount spent so far on this case exceeds $1 million.
One thing is for sure, this case represents only one of many where the Board of Supervisors has authorized unlimited funds be spent defending actions by the Board of Supervisors that are questionable. Even in dire economic times, the Board appears to have no concern for keeping a lid on litigation costs.