Local News

Saturday, Apr 07 2007 11:08 PM

Ousted First 5 director lands on feet

BY GRETCHEN WENNER, Californian staff writere-mail: gwenner@bakersfield.com

We may never know why Steve Ladd's tenure with First 5 Kern essentially ended Wednesday afternoon.

The closed-door discussion between Ladd and the agency's nine commissioners left the public with few answers.

By voting to oust him as First 5's executive director, the commissioners triggered a sweet severance deal that will pay the 61-year-old $113,000 or so next January -- after he takes about six months accrued paid leave expected to start in July.

It's quintessential Ladd to ride out a storm and land on his feet, wallet intact.

If you point out the grand jury investigations in his past, he'll point to the grand jury plaque in his office honoring his years of public service.

Every investigation or audit, he'll tell you, has cleared him of wrongdoing.

Ladd said Friday he was "saddened and disappointed" by the commission's decision.

"That's why you have a clause like that in your employment agreement," he said. "It's their right to terminate without cause and they chose to do that, so it is what it is."

As for what's next, he's not thinking about that just yet.

There's a couple of months' work left at First 5, including bringing a new director on board.

When that's done, don't expect him to kick back anytime soon.

"I'm too young to retire," Ladd said. "Besides, I've got a kid in college."

Curriculum vitae

From one viewpoint, the 20 years Ladd spent working for the county before he snagged the First 5 job was a successful stretch that ended for lack of a challenge.

Others see a string of investigations that culminated in Ladd's forced departure amidst scandal in June 1996, about three years before his First 5 appointment.

As might be expected, Ladd favors the first point of view.

"I did not leave county service 'amid scandal,'" Ladd wrote in an e-mail to The Californianin December 2004. "I left because my job as the county General Services director became less personally fulfilling and I was ready and able to pursue other interests."

It's true, the official timeline shows, Ladd announced his upcoming retirement before scandal broke in June 1996.

It's also true, however, that a Sheriff's Department investigation of falsified work-release records that spring prompted Ladd to retire earlier than planned in order to avoid being fired, court documents show.

The county's top administrator at the time, Joel Heinrichs, told a sheriff's investigator he "advised Ladd of the violations and his concern over integrity issues," the report from May 1996 says. "Ladd decided to retire instead of being terminated from his position."

(Read the full report at bakersfield.com.)

The department investigated allegations Ladd told employees to falsify a friend's work-release attendance records. James T. Decker, a psychologist working off a drunken driving arrest, was allowed to do off-site, unsupervised projects rather than "stack boxes" or wash windows, the report says.

One three-hour work credit included dinner with Ladd at the Bakersfield Country Club, the report shows.

Windmills

Other controversies came out of Ladd's two decades at the county.

* In June 1985, a state attorney determined Ladd and his boss Randall Abbott had a conflict of interest regarding their ownership of an $80,000 windmill in a Tehachapi wind park, news archives show.

The county grand jury also dinged the men, both then at the planning department, for exercising "remarkably poor judgement" in buying the turbine; their department had processed a zone change for the wind park the year before.

Abbott said at the time he'd discussed the investment with the county's top attorney before the purchase. Both men had disclosed the windmill on public economic interest statements.

* A grand jury investigation of the Planning Department in April 1986 again slammed Ladd and Abbott. The report said Ladd may have been promoted out of favoritism and used his position for personal gain.

Ladd denied the accusations. He and Abbott called the report a "character assassination," news reports show.

Later, supervisors hired an outside company for a management audit of the department that netted a largely positive report.

In August 1988, Ladd was promoted to head the General Services department.

In April 1996, the county's top administrator placed General Services under his direct control, effectively downgrading Ladd's position as department head.

First 5 beckons

Ladd's appointment to head the new First 5 Kern program in October 1999 raised some eyebrows at the time.

As with many things Ladd, the move brought both letters of support and criticism to The Californian 'seditorial pages, archives show.

Former county Supervisor Pete Parra, who chaired Kern's First 5 commission until he lost his supervisorial seat in January 2005, told The Californianat the time: "We looked at his experience, his education, and thought he was the best person for the job."

The First 5 gig has brought its share of praise and criticism, from state awards to grousing over self-congratulatory plaques, for example.

Most recently, The Californian 'sinvestigation last fall into an evaluation contract with Cal State Bakersfield revealed questionable spending of public funds on retreats, furniture and a leased convertible for the head researcher.

A forensic audit released in February, one of many First 5 audits since '99, again found nothing significantly wrong with the agency's financial controls.

"I'm glad that he was vindicated of a lot of the concerns people had in terms of the finances," said county Supervisor Ray Watson on Thursday. "I'm pleased change (is coming) after there had been some positive results from the audits and examinations that First 5 has gone through."

Supervisors created the commission as an independent public agency in 1998. They largely control the makeup of the oversight commission but have no voice in how First 5 distributes funds.

Ladd, too, feels positive about the organization.

"I'm very proud of the work that the First 5 Kern commissioners and staff have done in the last seven years," he said.

As for the controversies?

"I might point out, none of these investigations ever found anything," Ladd said Friday afternoon. "I've been vindicated in every case."

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