Posted on 27 April 2012.
Mono County CAO responds to his critics
“I’m a Human Resources Director, I’ve had to discipline and terminate a lot of people over my career. A lot of people probably don’t like me.”
Mono County CAO/Human Resources Director/Public Works Director Jim Arkens has been the subject of recent scrutiny. Two incidents from his past have led some Mono County citizens to question whether or not he is a liability to county taxpayers.
Describing himself as an open book, Arkens sat down with The Sheet to discuss the two incidents, as well as the ups and downs in Mono County during his first year as CAO.
The first incident was his involvement in an arbitration case at Holy Cross Hospital in Taos, New Mexico.
According to a U.S. District Court memorandum, over Memorial Day weekend of 2004, “a nurse in the labor and delivery unit of Holy Cross Hospital, was assigned to monitor a fetus that subsequently died during childbirth.” The Hospital alleged that the fetal demise was a result of patient care failures by the nurse. As a result of the incident, the Hospital requested that the nurse transfer to a different unit. When she refused, she was terminated.
“I had only been at the hospital for two months,” Arkens explained. “I wasn’t involved in the termination. I was given the arbitration and that was it.”
Following the outcome of the arbitration, the hospital was ordered to reinstate the nurse, but instead reassigned her to non-nursing duties, according to an article from a Taos newspaper. The nurse did not want to be reassigned so the hospital offered her $50,000 to resign, which she accepted.
Following this result, Arkens wrote an email to the National Labor Relations Board, which was investigating the hospital’s actions. According to another Taos newspaper article, the nurse then filed a complaint claiming that in the email, Arkens wrote, “We had to bring back a nurse who murdered a baby.”
“You say things to friends that you wouldn’t say otherwise,” Arkens told The Sheet. “It wasn’t supposed to go public.”
But it did and the nurse attempted to sue Arkens and the hospital for defamation. Arkens denied any wrongdoing and the lawsuit was eventually dismissed.
He pointed out that when he arrived at Holy Cross, union relations were strained. The union posted the nurse’s settlement check publicly to emphasize a union victory.
“It was a death but people took it lightly and it was all about money,” Arkens said. “It was the CEO’s choice [to offer the settlement], not mine. There is a huge liability to bring someone back who has been involved in a death.”
He pointed out that he stayed at the hospital for five and a half more years after the incident occurred.
A second incident that has recently been brought to the surface revolves around Arkens’ departure from his position as County Administrative Coordinator in Shawano County, Wis. Arkens submitted his resignation in March 2004, but was put on paid administrative leave by the Shawano County Board several weeks before his planned March 31, 2004 departure date.
“I put in my resignation and then the Board Chair put me on paid administrative leave,” Arkens said. “It’s common practice that when a top level position resigns, he isn’t wanted around anymore.”
News reports at the time described a strained relationship between Arkens and the Board Chair.
“He was known to say ‘I should have never hired the damn Catholic’,” Arkens said of the Chair’s attitude toward him.
“I chose to leave,” he added. “I didn’t like the community.” Subsequently, the Chair was removed, according to Arkens.
In both cases, Arkens said he didn’t do anything wrong. In response to some recent questions as to why the Mono County Board of Supervisors didn’t catch these things during Arkens’ background check, he pointed out that there was nothing criminal about either incident, so nothing would appear in a background check.
Arkens was originally hired on as the HR Director for Mono County. He was interviewed by then-CAO Dave Wilbrecht and can’t even recall if there was a supervisor present at his original interview.
“During my interview I did disclose that I was being investigated about the Taos incident,” Arkens said.
During a candidates forum on Tuesday, April 24, when asked about Arkens’ past, District 3 supervisor Vikki Bauer stated that “supervisors don’t do background checks. We took the word of Dave Wilbrecht.”
“People can throw all the rocks they want,” Arkens concluded. He felt that the mudslinging might be coming from people involved in the recent personnel hearings going on in Mono County.
Arkens was appointed Mono County Interim CAO on May 3, 2011 and filled the position permanently a month later, which means he is quickly approaching his one-year anniversary in the position.
In the past year, he feels he can point to many projects that had been stagnating before his appointment, which he has now pushed through to completion. These projects include: a new roof on the Crowley Road shop installed for half the originally quoted price; three out of five labor agreements completed; a balanced budget with zero layoffs and no furloughs, and consolidation of jobs to help save the county money.
One of the big challenges he has dealt with in the past year has been the aforementioned personnel hearings. Arkens terminated two employees after an alleged fight in the workplace. Both employees, as well as a third party bystander who was suspended without pay, are challenging the discipline they received.
For Arkens, the bottom line came from the outside investigator’s report that one of the men made a threat and moved toward the other; the second man, a supervisor, fought back. Arkens believes the supervisor’s retaliation was unacceptable.
“As a supervisor he is held to a higher standard.” said Arkens.
The thought that the county is trying to cover something up from the incident is “the biggest joke I’ve heard,” Arkens said. “Both men were terminated for mutual combat.”
One thing Arkens did learn from the arbitration in Taos was to always have an outside investigation completed in discipline situations.
“In Taos, the only investigation done was a peer review, which couldn’t be used in the arbitration,” Arkens explained, which is why the outside investigator was brought in for the Mono County incident.
Another tough topic that Arkens has dealt with in the past year has been labor negotiations.
“I wouldn’t say negotiations have been a challenge, but I’ve never negotiated concessions before now,” he said. “I don’t like taking things from people but that’s the economic environment we’re in.”
Over the years, Arkens claims he has mellowed on discipline.
“You look at things differently as you get older,” he said. “It used to be more black and white, but now there’s gray.”
Today, he believes it’s better to help someone correct their behavior rather than make them correct it.
As for his combination of job titles and whether or not it is healthy for the county to have the CAO, HR Director and Public Works Director positions all assigned to one person, Arkens didn’t feel it really mattered because the CAO makes the final decisions.
“Everyone reports to the CAO anyway, so I would have the ultimate decision,” he said.
He explained that discipline issues start at the department level before they come to him.
“I take a lot from the department heads [when weighing any issues that come up],” he said.
He also pointed out that he held the equivalent of a joint HR Director/CAO position in Shawano as well.
“The CAO and HR are interwoven,” he explained. “I don’t like having three jobs, but I do like saving the county money.”
He agreed that the current consolidation of positions at the county is a band-aide to get the government agency through these tough economic times. It will serve as a starting point for restructuring within the county.
“You can do it for a while, but it’s tiring,” he said. “You can’t continue 12-hour days forever.”
When asked if he planned to stick around, Arkens said that would be up to the Board.
“I enjoy what I’m doing,” he said. “I have excellent staff, and the year has gone by really fast.”
One of the big upcoming projects in his second year as CAO will be the review of the structure of the Mono County Paramedics following the outcome of a consultants’ report.