Riverside County supervisors Tuesday directed the Executive Office to analyze the process of holding individual agencies accountable for the county’s liability exposure and identify what methods may work best to reduce costs stemming from lawsuits impacting the county budget annually.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Kevin Jeffries first broached his civil litigation monitoring policy in 2014, and it was partially adopted by the board in November of that year, but key provisions were left out which the supervisor believed necessary to curb liability expenses.
Under Jeffries’ current proposal, the Executive Office must complete a study within 90 days rating the feasibility of changing the current practice of liability payouts.
“This is extremely harsh to departments, but there is nobody being held accountable,” Jeffries said. “We just hand out the taxpayer dollars, and very few people deal with the consequences of that.”
Since 2014, the county has disbursed an estimated $100 million to settle civil actions, according to the supervisor’s office. Jeffries said $64 million of that amount has been paid in just the last 25 months.
“This is an outrage,” county Auditor-Controller Paul Angulo told the board before its vote. “Every which way you look at it, it’s terrible.”
Angulo presented data showing that Riverside County’s liability payouts topped Orange, San Bernardino and San Diego counties — combined — over a two-year period. Only Los Angeles County’s disbursals were bigger, he said.
“We are bleeding here,” Angulo said. “Somebody needs to take responsibility for this. It’s a disaster.”
Lawsuits have been filed over sheriff’s deputies’ field tactics, child welfare workers’ failure to intervene in abuse and neglect cases and other matters. Angulo cited an example last month of a problem employee being discharged from his office — only to find work in another county agency, where the individual’s actions led to civil damage to the county.
The thrust of Jeffries’ desired policy change would involve placing the burden of covering costs stemming from lawsuits on the agencies “responsible for the direct oversight, management, or supervision of the program or employee related to the cause of the underlying litigation or claim.”
The county currently operates a risk management fund, or pooled account, into which all agencies pay as a kind of self-insurance.
The premiums paid by each agency are based on claims history and “exposure data” analyzed by officials from the Department of Human Resources, Office of County Counsel and other administrators.
According to Jeffries, complete reliance on the risk management fund “obscures the impact of losses on the broader county budget and occurs largely outside the view of taxpayers,” making it difficult to identify what went wrong and where adjustments are needed to reduce liability exposure in the future.
“We need to change the way we do business,” the chair said. “We need a policy holding more people accountable. That includes better training, supervision and conduct.”
Supervisor Karen Spiegel acknowledged that lawsuits have been setting a bad precedent for the county, where there has been little “pushback” to deter litigiousness.
“Lawsuits hurt constituents. But we need to say `enough,”’ she said.
Jeffries’ proposal would permit continued draw-downs of the risk management fund, as long as it could be shown that “the actions or inactions of the county were within the normal routine course of duty or services, and not a result of faulty policies, training, neglect or management” of a specific department.
The reform would provide an opportunity for agency heads to appeal in public session before the board for exemption of payouts from a departmental budget — or restoration of funds that were disbursed.
In 2014, then-Sheriff Stan Sniff vehemently opposed this approach, saying he would be exposed to “vulnerability” if placed in the position of arguing publicly about the different aspects of civil cases arising from the actions of sheriff’s personnel.
The sheriff’s position won sympathy from the majority of the board at that time, resulting in a watered-down “administrative protocol” that called for county executives to immediately report to the board “significant incidents” that could prompt a lawsuit; initiate an internal investigation of what transpired; and regularly report to the board all resolved or pending litigation.
When Spiegel asked Chief Counsel Greg Priamos what he thought of a tougher policy, he suggested the existing protocol was good and, thanks to the newly elected sheriff and newly appointed human resources director, “we’re at a point now where there’s a real opportunity” to reduce liability claims.
Jeffries said Priamos made the “same speech” in 2014.
“Fast forward, and it’s the very same issue again,” he said.
Jeffries is the only supervisor who was seated on the board in 2014.
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