Investigations

Before Edge-Wilcox fall, a falling-out

In mid-2007, County Administrator David Edge sent an e-mail to the county’s human resources director, Deb Hossli.

“Mind your own business,” Edge wrote.

The harsh admonition, contained in a series of e-mails The Tribune acquired under the California Public Records Act, represented a remarkable turnaround for Edge.

A year earlier, he had gone to war with the county’s Civil Service Commission in his effort to promote Hossli, at that time an analyst in the administrator’s office. The commission said Hossli did not meet minimum requirements.

Edge won the skirmish. The war, however, had an altogether different outcome: Edge, his top aide, Gail Wilcox, and Hossli all lost their jobs within the next two years, the first two ignominiously; they were fired.

Most of the attention surrounding the departures of Edge and Wilcox in late summer focused on the more prurient aspects — Edge’s alleged sexual harassment of Wilcox and her alleged willing participation in the flirtation.

But the sudden rise and abrupt fall of Deb Hossli that came before is an intriguing story in itself and, as an example of the way Edge and Wilcox ran the county government, it expands into a cautionary tale.

Rise and fall

The Tribune spent weeks reviewing thousands of e-mails among Edge, Hossli and Wilcox, and re-examining hundreds of pages in earlier county documents.

It uncovered a pattern of behavior at top levels of county government that is part morality tale, part manual on how not to run an organization.

The documents show, among other things:

The need for checks and balances in hiring procedures.

What can happen when personal and professional relationships overlap.

In an e-mail to The Tribune two weeks ago, Wilcox minimized the importance of the Edge-Wilcox-Hossli e-mails and, although she has not seen them, suggested that county officials selected them in a way that would make her look critical of Hossli.

“She and I did not agree on everything, and my guess is the e-mails you were given highlighted that on purpose,” she wrote.

The Tribune requested e-mails among Edge, Hossli and Wilcox from Jan. 1, 2007, through mid-August 2009.

Deputy County Counsel Rita Neal said she adhered to the Public Records Act in carrying out the “daunting task” of providing e-mails from the trio.

Neal did not disclose e-mails regarding litigation, personnel and other closed-session matters, and blacked out names of individuals who are not connected with the county, such as children.

“We complied with the law,” Neal wrote in an e-mail to The Tribune. “We believe the documents speak for themselves.”

Wilcox added that neither she nor Edge chose Hossli; the Board of Supervisors did. Afterward, Supervisor Bruce Gibson “told me that Deb was head and shoulders above the other candidates,” Wilcox wrote The Tribune in an e-mail.

Gibson, however, said “Mr. Edge actually made the appointment.”

Either way, Wilcox says, she did support Hossli being chosen human resources director because she is “extremely bright. She accomplished a lot for the county. She was also under a lot of stress from the beginning.”

Edge declined to comment.

Hossli could not be reached.

How it began

Context is important in understanding the Edge-Wilcox-Hossli dynamic.

When Edge was hired as county administrator in 1998 from San Benito County, the Board of Supervisors wanted a strong administrator, recalled Shirley Bianchi. She became a county supervisor six months after Edge arrived and retired in 2006.

Supervisors decided policy and empowered Edge to carry it out as he saw fit, she said.

In Bianchi’s view, Edge succeeded in professionalizing county government.

But in giving Edge carte blanche, many former county managers have said, the Board of Supervisors failed to provide checks and balances for Edge himself.

“Not only ‘former’ managers and employees have said (Edge) abused the power supervisors gave him,” Civil Service Commissioner Jay Salter wrote in an e-mail to The Tribune, “but presently serving department directors, managers and employees have voiced similar thoughts to me and other commissioners.”

Bianchi said her door was open to disgruntled employees, but she concedes that county workers may have kept silent about Edge because they knew she was strongly in his court.

Edge steadily amassed power, most notably by replacing department heads who were covered by civil service protections with managers who served at his will.

Edge, surrounded by people whose jobs depended on his favor and knowing the Board of Supervisors had his back, began to act arbitrarily, his critics say.

Enter Deb Hossli.

Edge faces opposition

Hossli had impressed Edge working in his office as a risk manager. He wanted to move her to the Human Relations Department. So he created a new position, deputy director, and sought to move Hossli into it in 2006.

Then Edge ran into something he had not experienced to any great degree as CAO: strong opposition.

It came from the Civil Service Commission.

Commissioners looked at the job specifications and decided Hossli didn’t meet them. Edge and Wilcox disagreed. They went to the commission one day in May 2006, and Edge lowered the boom.

“This is clearly a witch hunt of the worst kind,” he said, accusing commissioners of causing “unwarranted harm to a truly outstanding employee, and one of the board’s next generation of county leaders.”

Commissioners reacted angrily.

“I am surprised that a public official, indeed the one official who should set the example for all county employees, would publicly make such slanted and disparaging remarks about commissioners who perform civic duties,” Commissioner Jeannie Nix wrote at the time.

Edge swiftly withdrew his plan to reorganize the Human Resources Department.

Soon thereafter, however, the then-department director, Richard Greek, retired. That worked out nicely for Hossli because the job specifications for director are broad and general and do not require the specific knowledge of the discipline that the deputy director’s job does.

Hossli applied for the job and got it.

Best friends forever

During this process, Wilcox, who reported directly to Edge, had backed him up. In one e-mail to the Board of Supervisors in June 2007, she called Hossli “the best HR director we’ve had in at least 20 years.”

Wilcox and Hossli were close friends. In one e-mail Wilcox likened them to “Thelma and Louise.”

Their e-mails, sent to and from work e-mail addresses, show a pattern of exchanges that one might expect among close women friends outside the office.

“Debra, I love you and always will love you,” Wilcox wrote in November 2007. “You and I are so much alike. Except you’re skinnier and have a hell of a lot better fashion sense. And smaller feet.”

Although there were many work-related e-mails, a considerable number took on this personal content and tone: comfortable, warm, humorous, chatting about weight, feelings, relationships, dates, family.

Edge, too, got personal in his e-mails.

But the tone and content gradually changed.

The e-mails among Wilcox and Hossli show the strain on a personal friendship and the disintegration of a professional one, as the players were increasingly unable to separate the two.

They also show Edge growing irritated with Hossli.

Out of line

That came to a head in September 2007, when Edge forwarded an article about office attire to Wilcox, who shared it with Hossli.

“David taking time out from his day to (comment) on how my boots simply don’t ‘work’ with my dress,” Wilcox wrote. “Give me strength.”

Hossli e-mailed Edge that his observation “really annoyed” her because “Gail always dresses very professionally.” Unless he was joking, she wrote her boss, he was “totally out of line.”

Edge wrote back that his sending an article to Wilcox was trivial, that Wilcox could defend herself, and to “mind your own business.”

The exchange was just one of many that showed a deteriorating relationship.

On another occasion, Edge wrote Hossli after a disagreement with another county staff member, “Why not just follow the directions as we expect every department head to do? I don’t want to have to deal with ‘special treatment for Deb’ snide comments again.”

One of Hossli’s key problems was her belief that after the furor over her hiring, civil service commissioners never accepted her — an assertion that commissioners have denied to The Tribune.

Wilcox, however, wrote Edge that the commission “routinely removes Deb’s microphone during civil service hearings” and showed little regard for her.

Another problem all parties acknowledged was Hossli’s apparent inability to be diplomatic, with other county employees as well as with Edge and Wilcox. “You might want to think about that ‘tactful’ issue before you hit the send key,” Edge wrote at one point.

In November 2007, for example, Hossli wrote Wilcox that the latter’s comments at a meeting “seemed mean-spirited to me. God knows I expect that from David — but not from you.”

In January 2008, after she criticized him again, Edge canceled a meeting with Hossli and he wrote, “I’m sorry you find me uninspiring and overly critical. I hope in due course, my successor better meets your needs.”

On July 31, 2008 — a month before Hossli left — Edge wrote Wilcox that he had suffered an “explosion” at Hossli’s hands, during which Hossli, he said, told him privately that she felt “I don’t like her, kick her in the butt, never give her any credit, undermine her with my staff who now all hate her.”

“That she isn’t ‘delivering on product’ is the unkindest thing I have ever, or could ever say to her when she believes she is doing a terrific job running HR,” Edge went on.

“Should she call you may want to avoid response today.”

Lessons to be learned?

These patterns continued. In August 2008, Wilcox wrote Edge that she was receiving feedback from top employees who “feel Deb’s behavior is unacceptable and yet has been tolerated far too long (i.e. the ‘what message are we sending to everyone else’).”

By the end of the month, Hossli, the woman who Edge and Wilcox insisted on hiring against the judgment of others as a top-of-the-line manager, and over whom Edge had fought furiously with the Civil Service Commission, was gone.

Officially, she resigned.

Today, Tami Douglas-Schatz has replaced Hossli at human services and has assumed some of Wilcox’s duties as labor negotiator. By most accounts, she is a welcome upgrade.

Jim Grant, viewed by supervisors and many employees as a steady hand, is the new county administrator.

Are there lessons to be learned from the Edge-Hossli-Wilcox tenure, which so crystallized what critics have said was wrong with David Edge’s time as county administrative officer?

A key lesson, as civil service commissioners say, revolves around the need for checks and balances in county government. Indeed, that is one reason the civil service system exists, they say.

To be sure, the Edge-Wilcox reign could be a one-time thing, an unfortunate mix of personalities, or a lone error in judgment by Edge in selecting Wilcox’s close friend to do an important county job.

The Board of Supervisors — which has two new members this year — is not treating it that way. Although they are discreet and reluctant to criticize, an observer can discern from their actions that they want to handle management differently than was done under the old board.

Douglas-Schatz, for example, serves at will to them and not the CAO. Chairman Bruce Gibson said supervisors might make that change for all highly charged or “political” jobs, including planning director.

Does management style matter? Civil Service Commissioner Salter thinks so, and so do those who worked for Edge.

“News of Edge’s dismissal generated an audible sigh of relief along the halls of County Government Center,” he wrote to The Tribune in an e-mail last week.

Structurally, commissioners believe Edge was reintroducing a “spoils system,” whereby people get jobs based on their connections rather than by fairly competing for them.

“By requiring open and competitive recruitment, tenure, and discharge for cause, the civil service system is intended to protect employees from adverse actions during political power changes and is also intended to prevent favoritism,” Nix wrote during the commission’s conflict with Edge.

“The commission is concerned that the entire scheme to move Ms. Hossli into the personnel department as the deputy director violates basic principles of the civil service system,” she wrote.

If that was Edge’s plan, it worked. Until it didn’t.

Behind the scenes: a sample of Edge-Wilcox-Hossli e-mails

The Edge-Wilcox-Hossli e-mails offer a look behind the scenes at the top levels of county government, with feisty exchanges and friends-and-enemies lists, among others. They also show the strain that developed in the Gail Wilcox-Deb Hossli friendship.

All these excerpts come from e-mails sent at taxpayer expense.

On management:

“He is a grandstanding prima donna ... Tho he touts himself as a team player, I consider him to be the least so of all the elected dept heads. Even the sheriff for god’s sake.”

— Wilcox to Edge about Auditor-Controller Gere Sibbach, who raised questions about expansion of juvenile hall. (May 1, 2009)

“With Duane (Leib) gone my hate-meter has declined.”

— Hossli to Edge after he asked her to compile a list of people who like and dislike her. Leib was general services director. (Jan. 18, 2008)

“Vince told me today that Duane Leib is on the new Grand Jury. How much does that suck ”

— Hossli to Wilcox about Leib, who was openly critical of Edge before he retired. (July 11, 2008)

”With regard to ‘focus on work’ I have to say Gail, that’s downright insulting — both personally and professionally.” — Dori Duke of the Human Resources Department to Wilcox, one month after Hossli left. (Sept. 27, 2008)

” Consider the possibility that you guys are a bunch of toddlers in adult-sized bodies. Seriously dude, look up ‘crybabies’ in Websters it must say something about the DSA.”

— An e-mail Wilcox wrote but did not send to Tony Perry, a sergeant with the Deputy Sheriffs Association. She sent it instead to Edge, who wrote her “I take it this is the one you really wanted to send?” She said yes. (February 3, 2009)

“I feel like we need to talk about the e-mail exchange. Maybe it’s the e-mail tone thing but it ‘feels’ like u r mad at me. Can we get a drink after work today or tomorrow or Thursday to talk?”

— Wilcox to Edge, three weeks before the Board of Supervisors fired him. (April 27, 2009)

“It is extremely rare that you are done in by ‘big things’ — involuntary job separation almost always results from accumulated ‘little things.’”

— Job advice from Edge to Wilcox. (Jan. 17, 2009)

The Wilcox-Hossli personal friendship:

Wilcox said she was “walking on eggshells” around her friend, and complained that “you frequently unload on me or Admin and you are quite comfortable telling me and lots of other people in the organization when you think Admin doesn’t know what we’re doing or we’re closed minded jerks or whatever.”

— Wilcox to Hossli, in a series of lengthy e-mails sent back and forth. (May 7-8, 2008)

“I am not going to beg to be someone’s friend. ... Effective immediately, our interactions will be strictly on work-related matters.”

— Wilcox to Hossli, in the same series of e-mails, during which Hossli expressed doubts about Wilcox’s support. (May 7-8, 2008)

“I was unaware that you consider me the most self-centered person you have ever known. But now I am aware.”

— Wilcox to Hossli (May 22, 2008)

“Status: divorced ... ex-wife moved back to Bay Area successful self-made guy has beautiful home (he got house in divorce) 6’1”, baseball body — in good shape ... dark hair w/a little gray, blue eyes.”

— Hossli to Wilcox (April 17, 2008)

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