The section of Sonoma County government responsible for everything from monitoring the Russian River for toxic algae blooms to inspecting the safety of local restaurants is overworked and insufficiently staffed, challenges that hamper its effectiveness, according to a recently released civil grand jury report.
In its latest annual analysis published late last month, the 19-member civilian panel determined the county’s Department of Health Services’ Environmental Health and Safety section faced a staffing squeeze, particularly for middle management jobs, and relied too much on trainees to play key roles, among other findings. The little known but critically important government section has found it difficult to recruit and retain qualified employees, placing too great a burden on current staff members who suffer from “reduced job satisfaction” as well as “low morale,” the report said.
Matthew Stone, the grand jury foreman, said the report’s findings continue to show that the county has yet to fully recover from its recession-era belt tightening. “They’ve got a whole bunch of sort of big-picture priorities, but they’ve been starving their foot soldiers a little bit,” Stone said. “And that’s a concern.”
The section faces budget restrictions and hiring difficulties that, in the grand jury’s estimation, result in some positions being underfilled, meaning the job is held by a trainee rather than a more senior staff member.
The report says underfilling was partially responsible for the controversy surrounding last year’s National Heirloom Exposition, when vendors and exhibitors from the popular natural foods event said they were unfairly hit with fines and fees from health inspectors. The county’s health director at the time said officials were just following the law.
County department leaders, who have 60 days to file a formal response to the grand jury, are still “analyzing and reviewing” the report, said Christine Sosko, the county’s Environmental Health and Safety director. Sosko said it would be “a little premature” to comment directly on the grand jury’s findings or recommendations.
Sosko said the section has several senior-staff level employees reaching retirement age — a fact acknowledged by the grand jury report.
“In the interim, we’re finding that it’s difficult statewide to hire those management or senior-level staff,” Sosko said. “What we are finding is a lot of very qualified people that are just entering the career.”
Sonoma County also suffers from a lack of common awareness about the Environmental Health and Safety jobs, said Ellen Bauer, the county’s Public Health director. Its programs and services include public swimming pools and spas, tattoo facilities and practitioners, cannabis permits and inspections, childhood lead poisoning prevention, medical waste and nearly two dozen others.
“A lot of people don’t even really know that it is a career,” Bauer said. “People sort of stumble across it.”
Sonoma County currently has about nine Environmental Health vacancies for about 40 jobs, according to Sosko. Staffing levels have been “fairly consistent for many years,” Sosko said, but the Environmental Health workload has increased as the county has begun to regulate the marijuana industry, and the number of community events and festivals requiring food permits has grown. So the section has added several new positions to handle the heavier workload. One of the key hiring obstacles called out in the report is the county’s notoriously high housing costs, which, when considered in relation to salaries, make it difficult to attract employees, the report suggests.