iePolitics/The Sentinel, December 13th, 2009 – County government is about to sustain another top level personnel change, as county counsel Ruth Stringer is reported to be on the verge of either voluntarily leaving or being forced out of her post as San Bernardino County’s senior in-house lawyer.
Stringer, who has worked with the county of San Bernardino in the county counsel’s office since 1983, has been the consigliere to the board since November 8, 2006, when she was appointed as acting county counsel following the departure of Ronald Reitz.
Stringer, who graduated from the University of Illinois, began working for the county as an employee relations officer in 1978, attended the University of La Verne School of Law while working with county and passed the state bar exam in 1982. She transferred into the county counsel’s office in 1983, starting as a deputy county counsel. From 1989 until 2003, she served in the capacity of chief deputy county counsel and in September 2003, when Alan Marks retired as County Counsel to be replaced by Reitz, Stringer was promoted to the position of assistant county counsel, the position she held until she assumed the acting county counsel post in November 2006. On March 13, 2007, the board of supervisors, having discontinued its search for Reitz’s permanent replacement, settled upon Stringer.
Since that time, Stinger has held unquestioned primacy with regard to formulating the county’s legal strategies and responses. Her tenure as county counsel roughly paralleled the last half of recently departed county administrative officer Mark Uffer’s term as the county’s top manager, who was named interim county administrative officer in March 2004 and then given the official title as CAO in September 2004.
Over the last two years, a series of developments, some subtle and others more direct, undercut the board majority’s faith in the county’s senior management team. On November 17, the board voted 3-2 to remove Uffer.
Stringer, who throughout her tenure as county counsel up until November 10 was primarily visible to the public at the board of supervisors meetings sitting beside Uffer, is perceived by both the public and at least two of the members of the board as having been unquestioningly loyal to him. As dissatisfaction with Uffer set in, a degree of distrust toward Stringer manifested, borne of her connection to him, compromising the openness necessary to the attorney client relationship between county counsel and the board.
“Ruth was believed to be loyal to Mark Uffer,” one high-placed county insider said. “That made some members of the board think she couldn’t be trusted. She could have been fired the same day Mark was but I think they ran out of time. Now it is just a decision by the board about whether [her departure, forced or voluntary] is to take place now or after a CAO [to replace Uffer] is hired. I don’t think the board wants to micro-manage who are going to be the department heads. In other words, there is not going to be a complete gutting of the management team, but whoever the CAO ends up being will have to have people he feels comfortable with and can work with.”
Nevertheless, that source said there is an absolute need for county counsel to show primary loyalty to the members of the board above and beyond any other members of the county’s governmental structure.
“I think the idea is to have someone who is first and foremost committed to advising the board.”
Beyond Stringer’s closeness to Uffer, at least three members of the board were alarmed at the manner in which information accumulated during the investigation into the operation of the assessor’s office under former assessor Bill Postmus made its way to the district attorney’s office before that investigation was complete.
In January, the board of supervisors hired attorney John Hueston to do an exhaustive review of the assessor’s operations under Postmus. The purpose of that investigation was to provide the board with sufficient information with which to justify removing Postmus, who had proved to be a lightning rod for controversy in 2008, from office. That effort grew moot, when on January 15, while the district attorney’s office conducted raids at various locations in and outside the county connected to the assessor’s office and its personnel, investigators came across methamphetamine and Ecstacy at Postmus’ Rancho Cucamonga residence. He resigned as assessor, effective February 15.
Nevertheless, information being gleaned by Hueston which Stringer was made privy to was passed along to the district attorney’s office. Last week, in remarks he made before the Colton Rotery Club, district attorney Mike Ramos acknowledged that county counsel had proved “cooperative” in assisting his office in a simultaneous investigation into Postmus and other former members of the assessor’s office.
“Among the members of the board, some feel that she has been feeding stuff to the DA and probably Uffer,” the Fifth Floor source told the Sentinel.
Stringer’s apparent closeness to Ramos was given further demonstration when she attempted to limit the scope of an investigation which originated in the county’s human resources department into charges of sexual harassment lodged at Ramos by an employee of the district attorney’s office who is now out on stress leave.
That employee charged that she had carried on an affair with Ramos more than four years ago and retaliated against by her boss and her superiors when Ramos became concerned that she might go public with an account of her relationship with the DA. The county, at Stringer’s recommendation, hired the Los Angeles-based law firm Curiale Hirschfield Kraemer to look into the woman’s allegations. When the law firm began tracking further reports of Ramos having similar relationships with other office employees, according to information provided to the Sentinel, Stringer sought to narrow the focus of Curiale Hirschfield Kraemer’s investigation. Reportedly, human resources director Andrew Lamberto countermanded Stringer’s direction in this regard and, to date, Curiale Hirschfield Kraemer has been paid $140,000 to fully explore allegations pertaining to the district attorney.
Multiple attempts by the Sentinel to reach Stringer for comment this week were unsuccessful
An issue going to the heart of the move to oust Stringer is the cost of doing so.
Under county policy framed in large part by Stringer and passed by the board earlier this year, if she is fired by the county without cause, she must be paid, in addition to the retirement package due her, a severance buy-out equal to her $230,317.04 annual salary. If she can be persuaded to leave voluntarily, or if some cause is cited in her termination, the county will not need to pay her severance pay.
“An obvious concern here is no one wants to have to make another huge payout,” the Fifth Floor source said. With or without a year’s severance pay, Stringer will take a large amount of money out of the county upon her leaving.
She has accumulated a reported $500,000 in vacation time, administrative leave time, and sick leave. Attempts to verify that total were unsuccessful. While she will not be able to collect the sick leave as cash, she will be eligible to utilize 70 percent of the amount due her as sick leave as post retirement medical coverage. She will be able to cash out the vacation time and administrative leave time. In addition, she will be eligible to receive a $214,727.26 annual pension, calculated by a formula that will provide her with 2.5 percent times the number of years she has worked with the county  times the total of her highest yearly salary, $230,317.04, plus $6,000 in per year benefits, plus $2,400 in cell phone allowance, plus 160 hours (at $108.95 per hour) in vacation cash out, plus 80 hours (at $108.95 per hour) in comp time cash out, plus 112 hours (at $108.95 per hour),in holiday cash out.
At present, it is unclear whether sufficient votes exist among the board members to oust Stinger outright are in place.
Board chairman Gary Ovitt and Neil Derry appear to be leaning toward giving Stringer her walking papers. Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, who voted with Derry and Ovitt to axe Uffer, is said to be looking toward bringing in a new county counsel, but is reportedly reluctant to force her out and thereby commit the county to paying her a large severance fee.
Supervisor Paul Biane is said to have a closer relationship to Stringer than any of the other members of the board and is thus unwilling to support her removal.
The Sentinel has been unable to gauge supervisor Josie Gonzales’ sentiment with regard to Stringer in any way.
As for Stringer’s ultimate replacement, the board is collectively determined to make its own choice in the matter and not leave it to the incoming CAO. Moreover the board appears to be purposed to bring in someone who is currently outside the county counsel’s office.
Thus, the three logical choices – chief assistant county counsel Jean Rene Basle, principal assistant county counsel Andrew Hartzell and principal assistant county counsel Dan Haueter, are not likely to get the nod. Both Hartzell and Haueter are fast approaching retirement.
Basle is a candidate to take on the interim county counsel post, as are Hartzell and Haueter, but sentiment on the board appears to be more favorable toward a former member of the office, Dennis Wagner. Wagner, however, has the drawback of having once served as an attorney for Postmus, a circumstance that is giving the board pause. Wagner was formerly appointed interim county counsel, while Postmus was chairman of the board.