Balancing the County’s Budget Deficits
on the Backs of Children
on the Backs of Children
By Ray A. March
Jan. 30, 2002, 4 p.m.
Kangaroo Court Convenes
In odd anticipation of an unusually large audience, the commission ignored Kristin Domenichelli‘s warnings and instead decided to fire Donna Michelson at a special meeting held in the chambers of the Alturas city council.
Fearing that Michelson would make a scene or disrupt the meeting, the commission asked -- and received -- law enforcement officers from both the Alturas police department and Modoc County sheriff’s office to provide “civil standby” security.
An estimated 30 people, including members of the Modoc County Board of Supervisors and a number of county agency employees, watched as it took the commissioners just 19 minutes to dismiss Michelson, who it turns out wasn’t even present. Michelson had left as the meeting got underway. Her absence did not stop the commission from its determined mission as Carol Harbaugh quickly made the motion to fire her and Phillip Smith seconded the motion, bringing it to a vote.
Of the six commissioners voting, four voted in favor of firing Michelson, one commissioner voted no and another, Rusty DuVall, abstained saying he had not been on the commission long enough to make an informed vote.
The sketchy minutes taken in Michelson’s absence do not reflect how the votes were cast but they do indicate that two members, Supervisor Patricia Cantrall and Donna Geldreich, were not present.
Remaining unexplained because of the inadequate recording of what became known as the “unadopted” minutes is why did the minutes show there were seven members of the commission present when only six apparently voted.
Present were: Dr. Edward Richert, acting chair; Tracey Cochran, Alice Lybarger, DuVall, Harbaugh, Nelson and Smith. Earlier records show that Cochran, whose vote is not known, joined the commission at the same time as DuVall, who opted to abstain.
The commission gave no reason for firing Michelson. However, later documents show she was fired “without cause,” meaning the commission did not have good reason to fire her based solely on her job performance -- even though the commission had met in the previous closed session purposefully to discuss her handling of the concept paper during the public forum where representatives of the various agencies were defensive and personally attacked her.
Immediately after the commission fired Michelson Carol Harbaugh had the locks on the front and side doors of the commission’s office changed. The $84.67 bill from Boyd & Boyd Locksmithing was paid by Harbaugh the next day.
Two weeks later, at its Feb. 13 meeting, Phillip Smith made a motion, seconded by Dr. Edward Richert, to write letters of gratitude to the Alturas police department and Modoc County sheriff’s office for the security they provided at the Michelson dismissal hearing.
With the majority of the commissioners united in favor of the letter, only Rosemary Nelson abstained from voting, remarking that “having the authorities at the special meeting felt like overkill to her and that she wasn’t afraid of Ms. Michelson.”
However, it wasn’t until Aug. 13, 2002 -- more than seven months after the Michelson firing -- that the commission then chaired by Tracey D. Cochran actually sent the letters of appreciation to the police and sheriff for standing by at the Jan. 30 firing.
Curiously, while the commission felt it was important enough to call on law enforcement backup in case Michelson somehow got out of hand neither the Alturas police nor Modoc County sheriff deputy apparently saw their “civil standby” roles significant enough to made official reports to their files, according to sources in both offices.
There is only a routine mention in the “unadopted minutes” that an estimated 30 spectators, including elected officials, were present to witness the bizarre theatrics of the commission, including the commission’s incredible oversight in having someone present to take the official minutes when it fired its only employee.
Consequently, complete, detailed records of Michelson’s firing are apparently nonexistent.
During the course of the Modoc Independent News’ investigation of the Children and Families Commission’s handling of Donna Michelson and her repeated admonitions to move the Prop. 10 funds to an outside bank account which led to her firing, a spokesman for First 5 recently said Michelson had been placed on administrative leave prior to being fired.
This is not accurate, according to Michelson.
“I was never placed on administrative leave,” she told the Modoc Independent News. “I was served by the sheriff to appear at city hall (if I remember correctly, that same day, Jan. 30) and fired in front of the whole city. I was never called into a closed session, which is the appropriate thing to do.
“I was contracted as an independent contractor whereby I had to pay my own medical, retirement and use my own vehicle. I traveled back and forth to Sacramento requesting funds for the commission exceeding well over a million dollars upon my departure. I was only reimbursed for my travel and lodging expenses once I returned to Alturas.
“I had no petty cash fund and any extras for the office came out of my pocket. All authorized expenditures by me were signed by two board members. The only reason I was fired is because I wanted to know where the money was being kept and how it was being spent.
“Yet when I was fired, I was treated as a county employee and told I had to pay so much of my share of social security and was not paid the two years salary remaining on my contract, or another penny after that date. It's all a fabrication to make me the fall guy for all the money misappropriated by the board. I never misappropriated or spent an unauthorized penny of the Children's First 5 money.
“I insisted on setting up a separate bank account and hiring an accountant to keep track of the money. The board fought me every step of the way. Carol Harbaugh wanted control over that program (once it started making money) like her, (Mike) Maxwell, Phil Smith, Judi Stevens controlled every other program in that county.
“ They kept shifting the money, paying among the departments, putting it in the general fund and using it at their leisure. I had notified Sacramento, the federal government and local government to no avail.
“So, Carol Harbaugh started her smear tactics, Maxwell threatened me, and the rest of the board turned their heads, including the Board of Supervisors. I knew they were trying to get rid of me for doing my job and because I would not blindly authorize money or sign checks without knowing where the money for Children's First 5 was.
“ It’s my understanding Carol Harbaugh and Judi Stevens had complete control over the funds. So, one day I was summoned to city hall on the pretense that it was an emergency meeting, but the reason was to be publicly fired or terminated without cause.
“Of course, they told the town I was stealing money. I was told I had to pay some $5,000 plus dollars as my contribution to Social Security, which I did, then when I was terminated, they said I was a county employee under the county office of education and thus Carol Harbaugh had the right to fire me. It’s too many lies for me to keep track of.”
Next: Part 25
The Children and Families Commission had rid itself of a thorn, now it could go about its business as usual without a watchdog looking over its shoulder. And that’s exactly what it did, except it came perilously close to violating the Brown Act as it continued to ignore state law requiring that the Prop. 10 Trust Fund be kept separate from the county treasury.