Grady Williams (left) speaks with Office of Emergency Management chief Michael Harris at a County Board of Supervisors meeting in January 2010

Paul Wellman (file)

Grady Williams (left) speaks with Office of Emergency Management chief Michael Harris at a County Board of Supervisors meeting in January 2010

Jail Manager Fired for Cancer or Just Cause?

11-Year Veteran Grady Williams Suing County of Santa Barbara for Millions

Originally published 8:00 p.m., April 29, 2014
Updated 6:00 a.m., May 5, 2014
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The longtime chief manager of Santa Barbara’s new jail project is suing the county and fighting for his job back after he was fired last summer amid accusations of misconduct. Grady Williams, however, claims he was dismissed because he asked for a lighter work load to treat his advanced cancer, and that the move was both politically motivated and shortsighted, leaving the biggest project in Santa Barbara history without a leader and with the possibility of unnecessarily costing taxpayers lots of money.

In two separate but related civil filings, Williams is seeking upwards of $5 million in lost wages, future earnings, and compensatory damages. A decision in one of the cases will be made by Judge Donna Geck this Friday.

Williams was fired from his post in the General Services Department for allegedly misleading staff and the public by using the initials “PE” (professional engineer) in his title on business cards, emails, letterhead, and other official documentation. The decision was handed down in June by General Services Department director Matt Pontes, who was hired by former CEO Chandra Wallar two months earlier. Williams is licensed as a professional engineer in Washington state, but not California.

During his 11 years with the county, Williams also served as its Capital Projects Manager, overseeing the construction of the Emergency Operations Center, Santa Maria’s new court facilities, and the Family Resource Center and Library in Cuyama. He partnered with Sheriff Bill Brown to secure an $80 million state grant for the new jail, and was in charge of selecting and hiring architects, engineers, and other consultants to design and construct the massive building.

When he learned of his termination by email during a long-awaited vacation, Williams hired attorney Matt Clarke and appealed to the county’s Civil Service Commission, a five-member, quasi-judicial body appointed by the Board of Supervisors that oversees employment matters. After conducting interviews and reviewing evidence presented by Williams, Pontes, and the county’s Human Resources Department, the commission ruled in November that Williams should be re-instated “with full back pay, benefits, and interest, and should otherwise be made whole.”

In a lengthy list of findings, the commission stated Williams “held a mistaken but good faith belief” that it was permissible to use PE in his title in California as he had during previous jobs with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Goleta Water District; he never meant to misinform his department about his credentials, and it was well-known among his colleagues and clients that he was only licensed in Washington; Williams never held a position or performed duties that required a California license; and he was never previously ordered or admonished to drop the PE from his title. (In separate legal filings, Williams asserts that he was actually told to use the initials by a former boss.)

The commission stated that Pontes fired Williams with the inaccurate conviction that Williams was actively trying to skirt the rules, noting that Pontes wanted to “communicate to other Department employees … that [he] would be holding them to high standards.” The commission also said Pontes “speculated that [Williams’s] use of the P.E. designation might result in potential liability to the County of Santa Barbara and negative media attention. However, Pontes’ concerns in this regard were unwarranted and unjustified.”

Lastly, the commission noted that Williams, who was bestowed with multiple commendations during his career and never received an unsatisfactory performance evaluation, was cleared of any wrongdoing by the Board of Professional Engineers after the county filed a complaint with the organization. The engineers board advised Williams to simply say that his license is from Washington if he uses PE in his title in California.

Despite the order of re-instatement, the county has told Williams to stay home while it challenges the decision. In a surprising and very rare move, the county counsel office has sued the Civil Service Commission, alleging it overstepped its authority and failed to offer proper and legal reasons why Williams should be given his job back. Attorneys argue that even if Williams didn’t act in bad faith by using the acronym, he still committed a misdemeanor and a fireable offense. The February 14 filing asks the court to overturn the commission’s order and argues that if Williams is reinstated, the county will “have to move personnel around in the department, and potentially initiate a layoff to create funding and a vacancy.”

Judge Donna Geck denied county counsel’s request in a preliminary ruling on April 18, noting that contrary to the county’s assertion, no layoffs would be necessary because the General Services Department is still advertising to fill Williams’s former jail manager position. Geck will deliver her final decision this Friday, after months of delay-inducing motions filed by the county. County counsel Mike Ghizzoni, along with Pontes, said they couldn’t comment on pending litigation.

At the time of his termination, Williams was both managing the jail plan and heading the Capital Projects division within the General Services Department. Those duties have since been split, and Capitol Projects job has been filled. Though Williams has been told to stay out of the office, the county continues to accrue the cost of his salary, benefits, and overhead, which totals around $150,000 a year. The department had an operating budget last year of $41.3 million and employed the equivalent of 113 full time positions.

Williams has also filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the county that makes allegations of discrimination and retaliation. That case entered the court system on March 26 and remains in its preliminary stages. In the suit, and as explained by Williams during a recent interview, Williams was diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer in May 2010 that required surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. He kept the news quiet for fear of losing out on possible promotions.

In April 2013, Williams was still feeling the effects of the disease, and he provided the county’s Human Resources Department with a letter from his oncologist advising him to limit his work day to 8 hours, lower his stress, get exercise, and take regular meals. Williams said he was working 50-60 hours a week at the time, but no changes were made to his schedule, despite the letter. Williams also said that a Human Resources rep told him she intended to disclose his health problems to Pontes because he would see the information anyway when Pontes reviewed Williams’s personnel file, and because supervisors must be informed of such matters.

Not long after, during one of their regular one-on-one meetings, Pontes allegedly asked Williams if he “had the strength” to continue with the lengthy and demanding jail project, which is expected to take another five years to complete. Pontes brought up the PE issue at the next meeting, and fired Williams three weeks later.

Williams said that Pontes may have felt threatened by his expertise on the jail project and speculated that there were other such motives for his termination. During meetings between Williams, Pontes, and CEO Chandra Waller, Pontes was reportedly unable to contribute much to the discussion, and when he did, he was often chastised or belittled by Wallar.

Wondering if Pontes fired him to protect or advance his own career, Williams claims there have been other grumblings in the department since Pontes came on board, and that he occasionally displayed the overly demanding and micro-management style that defined Wallar’s brief and contentious time with the county. Williams also said that he and County Counsel Mike Ghizzoni regularly butted heads over multiple jail matters, and stated his termination and Ghizzoni’s involvement in trying to uphold it may be more personal than professional.

Williams, married with three children, said his cancer was detected again this January and that he’s begun a new regime of doctors’ appointments. Nevertheless, he said he’s ready and able to go back to work on the North County jail project. In the meantime, he’s consulted on Contra Costa County’s new jail and other building initiatives, but said he can’t afford the ups-and-downs of a consulting business with a family to feed and a mortgage to worry about.

More importantly, Williams went on, he needs access to quality health insurance after issues with COBRA left his medical care in serious financial limbo. He said he suspects his career will remain relatively stagnant if and when he is reinstated, but that he needs and wants to stay in Santa Barbara for a variety of personal and practical reasons.

Of his long-running battle with the county and its attorneys, Williams said simply, “I put in 11 good years. I think they can treat me a little better.”


Independent Discussion Guidelines

Always 2 sides to a story....but the county looks like they made a dck move.

lawdy (anonymous profile)
April 29, 2014 at 9:38 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Great, hopefully he wins and they won't build anymore jails.

loonpt (anonymous profile)
April 29, 2014 at 9:50 p.m. (Suggest removal)

The County should and will lose this case. Whoever made the decision to fire this guy was an idiot. The whole PE designation thing is so lame as to be silly. This was an obvious attempt to reduce County liability for medical costs. There might have been some personality issues involved, but you don't get to fire someone in the public sector for personality issues. The County should settle this for a million dollars or so or give the guy his job back. Otherwise they are going to pay 3 million dollars and give the guy his job back. What a bunch of idiots the County seems to be.

Eckermann (anonymous profile)
April 29, 2014 at 10 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Certainly, the public sector has different standards for union and non-union personnel. You can be a teacher and molest children and still keep your job. However, if you're non-union and put the wrong initials on your business card, you can get canned.

Botany (anonymous profile)
April 29, 2014 at 10:59 p.m. (Suggest removal)

In 1971, voters adopted a civil service ordinance. Managers are civil servants who are entitled to a hearing by the Commission if they are disciplined. The commission heard the case and its decision is final unless overturned by the court. Was the use of the PE designation sufficient for termination? The Commission said no.
Moreover, was the termination caused by discrimination because of cancer? If so, that is a violation of the law which protects those with disabilities.
My opinion is that the County should cut its loses and reinstate the guy.

LHThom (anonymous profile)
April 30, 2014 at 7:36 a.m. (Suggest removal)

@ Botany, I have been on both sides of that scale, Union and Non-Union as a Teamster while driving a Commuter bus in Detroit, Mi. It is all in the representation not the in the lack of facts. Union=Represented / Non-Union=Not a Chance in Hell!
I also have experienced this type of backstabbing in Government Run positions all the way up the ladder to Federal and as far down as Townships, the level of underhanded operations by either Supervisors or co-workers is staggering, Mr. Williams has a stronger case than the County but the County can and would have more opportunity to falsify documentation and lie to keep their Standard Operating Procedures (SOP), in place and conduct themselves in the same matter; 'see a threat, get rid of it'. I hope Mr. Williams either gets his job back or receives full compensation.

dou4now (anonymous profile)
April 30, 2014 at 9:41 a.m. (Suggest removal)

The one who should be fired is the one who fired Williams. The county will lose this if they choose to go to court.

buckwheat (anonymous profile)
April 30, 2014 at 9:49 a.m. (Suggest removal)

This has nothing to do with union or non-union. Civil servants have a property interest in their employment and it cannot be taken away without due process of law which is the civil service commission who agreed with Mr. Williams. The County lost and now they are saying it's inconvenient to put him back to work because the position is filled. The judge disagreed. The county should fold and not try to fire him or delete his position or he has a good case for violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Also, he can sue for retaliation. The County should not waste one more dime of taxpayers' money.

LHThom (anonymous profile)
April 30, 2014 at 11:10 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Yes $300K annual salary and benefits is an awful lot of property interest...sounds to me like half sword fight, half budget trimming. Being on the wrong end of that sucks. Sad for the guy with the family and his health, but he may have priced himself out of the market. Aren't we all "at will" employees? Well I guess the practice of using P.E. with one's initials will actually manifest it self as being liability.

As a side note, I cannot believe the NEWS PRESS isn't all over this piling on with it's drama filled #@$%@#$%!!!

bimboteskie (anonymous profile)
April 30, 2014 at 2:05 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Having been employed with the County, I can tell you that under the rule of Wallar it was her way or the highway. She ruled the roost under very personal guidelines. Cross her and you were out. Her cronies of Matthew Pontes, HR Directors Jeri Muth and Robert MacLeod supported her spiteful tactics. Mr. Williams needs to be reinstated and the three aforementioned public servants escorted out the way they did Wallar. She may not have been fired, but she certainly wasn't welcome anymore.

lollywood (anonymous profile)
April 30, 2014 at 2:55 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Perhaps the bigger problem is that currently nobody is running the jail.

The news that a couple of staff were charged recently is the tip of the iceberg.

Stay tuned.

ahem (anonymous profile)
April 30, 2014 at 5:44 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Wait a minute, I thought Sheriff Bill Brown was behind securing all this money? We now find out he had help? Kinda funny he never mentioned this other than I, I, I, me,me,me…..

Priceless (anonymous profile)
April 30, 2014 at 6:36 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Bimboteskie: civil servants are not "at will"employees. They can only be disciplined for cause. Private industry employees are at will but they cannot be disciplined for reasons which violate the law such as religious reasons, racial reasons or disability reasons.

LHThom (anonymous profile)
April 30, 2014 at 7:50 p.m. (Suggest removal)

If the journalist, Tyler Hayden, had even bothered to do just a scintilla of research on the California State Controller's website, under the Government Compensation in California link, he would have seen that no one, absolutely no one, earns even close to a salary $300,000 a year in county employment, let alone in that department. Public Employees compensation is public information and can be found there, and on many other newspaper websites. What they earn is no big secret.

LHThom - you are incorrect in your generalized statement. Although the majority of employees in both the County and the other areas of government have civil service protection, there are several civil servants who are "at-will" in the County of Santa Barbara. They are typically heads of the departments and senior managers. They serve at the pleasure of the Board of Supervisors or their respective department heads.

historypete (anonymous profile)
May 1, 2014 at 1:52 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Dept heads and assts are at will. Managers who are not dept heads or asst or elected officials are civil servants. It is all spelled out in the county code. Mr Williams is/was a civil servant.
Re salary: His salary plus benefits are $300,000 grand as I read the article. If you he is a safety member, his benefits are probably huge. Typical safety member roll up = 100% of salary. Feel free to ask Bob Geis if you doubt it. The HR director can also confirm the salary plus roll up.

LHThom (anonymous profile)
May 1, 2014 at 2:48 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Having two loved ones who suffered from cancer I am sympathetic to workers who want to continue on during treatment. From what I can tell the standard is whether the employer can reasonably accomodate their needs while the worker has cancer. In researching this issue for a family member over the weekend I came across two articles, by the same law firm, that cover this, and book marked them:

Now, an important public official who is needed more than 40 hours a week I would think needs to explain how long he needs the accomodation. if it is a reasonable amount of time he should not be booted from his job. The information does not seem to indicate how long the official needs. I would like to know.

AshleySimmons (anonymous profile)
May 4, 2014 at 9:04 p.m. (Suggest removal)

To make reasonable accommodation, it depends on the job. I have had cancer twice with chemo for one bout and radiation for the other. Radiation was no problem. Chemo was incapacitating.
For the case under discussion, civil servants are entitled to medical leave but it doesn't go on for the length of most chemo treatments.

Asking to work only 40 hours per week seems to be a reasonable request. The county said he was fired for using the PE designation. He is now suing because he says one of the reasons he was fired is because he asked for reasonable accommodation.

Thanks for helping your family members. It's hard enough fighting cancer without having to go through the stress of losing employment and insurance coverage.

LHThom (anonymous profile)
May 5, 2014 at 7:02 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Another example of the "new directors" being more political lackeys than true professionals. This guy replaced Bob Nisbet, long time "effective" General Services Director. Great example of a top notch administrator forced to leave so that a lackey could replace him. We are full of "yes men/women", just as this BOS majority wants.

BeachFan (anonymous profile)
May 5, 2014 at 9:04 a.m. (Suggest removal)

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