PD Editorial: Hard to laugh at comical waste in state government

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We periodically use this space for short “thumbs up, thumbs down” items to highlight the best and worst of recent events. Today, we’re deferring to state Auditor Elaine Howle, who just released her annual whistleblower report.

There isn’t a thumbs up to be found — except for the unnamed state employees who reported egregious behavior in their own agencies.

Some of the on-the-job hijinks would be funny if it weren’t for the wasted public money, the breach of the public trust and the astonishing examples of feeble oversight.

An assistant Cal Fire chief built a backyard Tiki bar, complete with plumbing, electrical and sewer connections, at a residence he rented from the state firefighting agency.

The assistant chief, who isn’t named in Howle’s report, paid for the materials, but he failed to get permission for the addition or submit it for a review by the state fire marshal.

He had three Cal Fire employees, including a battalion chief, help with construction while they were on duty. When it was complete, he hosted parties, served alcohol and, at times, he even provided a limo bus to transport guests.

The assistant chief was suspended without pay for 30 days, according to Howle, and he tore down the structure to avoid being evicted.

At the Department of Motor Vehicles, an employee napped on the job several hours a day over about 3½ years.

Howle’s estimated that taxpayers forked over about $40,000 in wages for about 2,200 hours of nap time for the unnamed employee, whose job involved recording changes of address, vehicle ownership and other information.

And, as they say in TV ads, there’s more.

The employee’s supervisors knew that she was napping on the job. Their response? They mentioned the naps in performance evaluations, but the woman wasn’t disciplined. The supervisors told investigators they suspected she was suffering from a medical condition that caused the nap attacks. Inexplicably, they didn’t address that either.

Moreover, they told investigators they believed the woman slept about 20-30 minutes a day. Other employees in the same office unit said she slept several hours a day. Based on her work output, which was less than half the daily expectation for people in her job classification, Howle said investigators concluded that she slept at least three hours a day.

The kicker: DMV officials told Howle there wasn’t adequate documentation to take action against the employee. But they promised to do better in the future.

As for the supervisors, DMV told auditors they were given additional training but faced no other sanctions because they had no previous record of “performance issues in similar situations.” We sure hope there aren’t any similar situations at the DMV — or anywhere else in state government.

The Cal Fire Tiki bar and the sleepy DMV employee were among 86 investigations conducted over the past by the auditor or other state agencies stemming from the California Whistleblower Protection Act, which protects employees from retribution if they report misfeasance or malfeasance.

Most public employees are honest, hardworking people — like the ones who reported these abuses. But these incidents, and a handful of others detailed in Howle’s annual report, including two groundskeepers who were paid about $110,000 while playing hooky at Fresno State University, show that California needs plenty of help safeguarding the public’s money.

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