San Luis Obispo County workers on leave made $519,460

The county paid more than half a million dollars to 60 employees who were on leave while their work performances were being investigated over a nearly three-year period, according to a civil grand jury report.

The grand jury did not criticize the payouts, which were tucked into the body of a report that evaluated employee discipline procedures.

“Half a million dollars is a lot of money, but less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the county’s cost of operation during the period,” which ran from Jan. 1, 2007, to Oct. 31, 2009, the report said. The actual paid leave figure is $519,460.

The grand jury wrote that the average administrative leave lasted 31 workdays. Because of personnel confidentiality rules, it did not name people who were placed on leave.

However, in a case that became public in 2009, Assistant County Administrator Gail Wilcox was placed on paid administrative leave between May 7 and July 15, when she was fired. The dollar figure for her leave was not available.

Wilcox lost her job for an inappropriate relationship with a labor negotiator for a union with whom she was negotiating as the management representative.

Two Public Works Department employees, Randy Ghezzi and Max Keller, received more than $41,000 in salary while on leave for approximately three months over the summer.

Citing privacy laws, the county never revealed why the two men were on leave, although there was no shortage of unattributed rumors about it. Ghezzi later left the county, and Keller took a different job at lower pay.

The grand jury report was not about the cost of paid administrative leave, which grand jurors downplayed. Rather, it explored the county’s discipline system in general and found it “appropriate.”

It delineated a series of “progressive discipline steps up to and including being fired. During the 34-month period it examined, 42 employees were disciplined; of those, 19 resigned, retired or were fired.

In one of its few recommendations, the grand jury suggested that the county increase its training of managers.

Supervisors “occasionally fail either to notice or to document employee behavior that falls short,” the grand jury wrote.

It cited three cases in which employees were marked satisfactory, “when subsequent investigation revealed that the behavior had been unacceptable.”

Grand jurors said they did not know whether this was due to an oversight by the supervisor, a failure to document inadequacies, “the supervisor did not have the courage or the skill to provide the employee with honest feedback,” or some other reason.