Looking behind the scenes: Don’t confuse county CEO with grim reaper

By: Jim Ruffalo
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While bowing, the Notebook feels it would have been better television had Akio Toyoda cut off the last digit of his little finger — or even engage in a little seppuku — while testifying to Congress. On the other hand, it should be noted that each and every Democrat on that inquisitive panel has accepted campaign contributions from the United Auto Workers, which is also a major stockholder in General Motors... And there was another nearly ceremonious moment this past week, although the one I refer to occurred at Tuesday’s Placer County Board of Supervisors meeting. Trooping up to the dais, although sans the bow, were three department heads. To be more precise; there were three elected department heads — District Attorney Brad Fenocchio, County Clerk Jim McCauley and County Treasurer Jenine Windeshausen. The three were there to protest what they felt was an intrusion into their state constitution-protected turfs. The perceived intrusion was the so-called Item 4 portion of a request by County Chief Executive Officer Tom Miller. Item 4, which more than one county employee called “the death penalty” in explaining it to me, seemed to allow Miller unilateral authority to lay off any county worker he deemed expendable. Supervisors delayed voting on Item 4, but it will be back. In defense of the trio, the item at first blush appeared to do exactly what the elected officials feared, and the fact that a computer glitch delayed the electronic publishing of the upcoming agenda until after lunch on Friday caused them to simultaneously come unglued before the weekend. “I found out about it at about 2 p.m. on Friday, which happened to be an MTO (mandatory time off or so-called furlough) Friday,” Fenocchio said. “I can tell you, it didn’t make for an enjoyable weekend.” It should also be pointed out that most — if not all — elected department heads are still bristling from last year’s budget process where they say they were kept in the dark, notified tardily of upcoming hearings and were all subsequently quoted by county staffers as agreeing to everything. Miller said that the info is and has always been available, including a rather lengthy report at the Feb. 11 department heads meeting. He then went on to claim that he’s not asked for, nor received, permission to exercise such grim-reaper power. “Granted that, (the county) needs about $6.5 million in savings, and that one option is layoffs. Still, it’s nonsense that I can go into an elected department head’s (area) and order layoffs,” he added. However, Miller admits that the board of supervisors retains powers to force layoffs even in departments headed by elected officials. It goes without saying that the board controls the purse strings for any and all county departments, but Miller was specifically referencing the board’s legal purview of setting the number of employees in each department. In other words, if the board told the sheriff it was funding just 10 correctional officers instead of 20, Miller insists that the the law and attorney general opinions are on his side. Can it happen? Well, Miller said that $6.5 million equals about 100 county jobs, so you do the math... Sign of the times: Among the saddest of the news items in the past few issues of The Journal was the one bemoaning the closing of Downtown Auburn’s Pizza Place. Not only are we losing an emporium which produced a pretty good pizza pie, but we now will also be minus the hard-working duo of Mike and Richie Hocutt, who did all they possibly could to keep the place open despite having to battle big government on three fronts (city, state and federal). Sadder still was the hand-written note taped to the front door of the now closed shop, which read: “The Downtown improvements look great. We’re just sorry we couldn’t stay in business long enough to enjoy them.” Take that note to be a warning of what could happen here. The Pizza Place provided a couple of jobs, was hardly stingy when local charities came calling, and went out of its way to be generous whenever it could. Every time a local business shuts down, we lose yet another precious piece of Auburn. Think about that the next time you burn three bucks’ worth of gasoline to drive down to Wal-Mart to save 13 cents on a jar of mayonnaise. Requests: Probably as a holdover from my days as a DJ over at KAHI, I still do requests. You might be surprised at the number of e-mails I get from readers asking me to check into something or someone. Among the latest inquiries are more than a few involving local roads. Several readers have questions concerning bridges; namely why are there so many car-rattling, suspension-killing bumps at nearly every bridge on either Interstate 80 or Highway 49? I’m looking into it, and so far all of the answers need to come from Caltrans, which loves press conferences but seems to detest actually giving out any real information. Jim Ruffalo’s column runs Sundays in the Journal. Reach him at