The latest round of a messy, personal, and expensive battle waged at the highest level of Santa Barbara County government ended in Judge Donna Geck’s courtroom this week. Geck ruled in favor of Grady Williams, former chief manager of the $96 million North County jail project, who was fired in summer 2013 as he was fighting late-stage cancer. Williams challenged his firing — ostensibly for using “PE” (professional engineer) in his title when he’s accredited in Washington but not California — and was reinstated with back pay by the county’s Civil Service Commission.
In a highly unusual move, the county then sued its own commission — a five-member, quasi-judicial body appointed by the Board of Supervisors that oversees employment matters — to overturn Williams’s reinstatement, but Geck’s ruling keeps the 11-year veteran on the payroll. His firing took place under the watch of former County CEO Chandra Wallar. Williams maintains he was terminated when he asked for a lighter workload because of his illness. He said he was working 50-60 hours a week at the time and that his oncologist advised him to limit his days to eight hours.
Williams no longer oversees the jail project — the largest public undertaking in county history — and has been relegated to managing lesser jobs like installing air conditioning systems and refurbishing bathrooms. He nevertheless maintains his approximately $150,000 a year in salary and benefits. The new jail manager does not have a bachelor’s degree or any professional licensing, Williams said. To make room for Williams on the personnel roster again, the county was reportedly forced to lay off a recent hire.
Geck found that Williams’s supervisors never instructed him against using PE in his title and that Williams never held a position or performed duties that required a California engineering license; instead, he helped apply for and secure multimillion-dollar state grants and hire architects, engineers, and consultants. (Geck’s tentative ruling, which was finalized Friday after the county declined to offer a rebuttal, is included below.)
Williams and his attorney, Matt Clarke, have also faulted the county’s Human Resources department for botching its investigation into the PE issue and relying on inaccurate testimony from other employees in the chain of command. They said it’s unclear if those employees kept the Board of Supervisors properly informed throughout the process.
In a separate but related court filing, Williams has sued the county — which is on the hook for his attorneys fees in the latest legal proceedings — for wrongful termination and made allegations of discrimination and retaliation. He said he’s owed upward of $5 million. The civil trial is scheduled to begin in February 2016 if a settlement agreement isn’t reached. County Counsel Mike Ghizzoni said the county has 60 days to appeal Geck’s ruling. “We have decisions to make in both cases,” he said.