Merced County Supervisor John Pedrozo announced Friday that his personal assistant, Brenda Valenzuela-Porras, is no longer employed by Merced County, effective immediately.
In his one-page statement to The Sun-Star, Pedrozo apologized for the “embarrassment” he caused the county and explained some of his actions, which included calling police Chief Norm Andrade last May to find out why his assistant was stopped by police.
“Regretfully, I have caused embarrassment to Merced County through this matter,” Pedrozo said in the statement. “My inquiries made to the Merced Police Department were a mistake. I take full responsibility for this.”
Pedrozo also addressed his writing of a letter to a judge, using county letterhead, to defend his assistant and calling her a “safe driver,” despite knowledge of a prior DUI and a subsequent suspension on her license. Pedrozo said he wasn’t aware of his assistant’s full driving record until recent articles in The Sun-Star.
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“Recent disclosures in a local newspaper demonstrated that my assistant did not fully inform me of changes to her driving status, which is a violation of (Merced) County policy,” he said in the statement. “While she is a good person who performed her job duties well, this nondisclosure is unacceptable.”
Pedrozo maintained Valenzuela-Porras never drove a county vehicle with a suspended license, based on his knowledge. However, county driving records obtained by The Sun-Star showed Valenzuela-Porras “checked out” vehicles on five occasions while her license was suspended.
Pedrozo said in the statement that his assistant checked out county cars for him to drive.
“My assistant did check out (Merced) County vehicles on occasion for my use,” Pedrozo explained. “That was one of her jobs. To my knowledge, she never drove a (Merced) County vehicle with a suspended license.”
Aside from the written statement, Pedrozo said he would not discuss the matter further. Valenzuela-Porras did not return calls for comment Friday.
County Management Analyst Mike North said Pedrozo has no immediate plans to fill Valenzuela-Porras’ position. “However, he’s not ruling out that he won’t hire another (assistant) in the future since it helps to have someone who’s bilingual. He has a very diverse district,” North said.
A few members of the county Board of Supervisors reacted to their colleague’s announcement Friday morning.
“John has told people if he had to do it over again he would have handled it differently, and that calling law enforcement and speaking to them was a mistake,” said District 2 Supervisor Hub Walsh. “And I echo that with him.”
District 3 Supervisor Linn Davis said constituents sometimes call elected officials when they’re in trouble to ask for help, so it can be difficult to draw the line.
“Should one go out and use their position to make something happen? No,” Davis said. “But sometimes people call us to see if we can help out, and I do call to make sure proper procedures were followed.
“But you draw the line where you don’t try to influence how people are treated,” he continued, “and I don’t know whether John stepped over the line.”
District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey said that after hearing Pedrozo’s announcement Friday morning, she contacted County Executive Officer Jim Brown to discuss implementing better hiring practices for personal assistants.
County officials did not run a Department of Motor Vehicles check on Valenzuela-Porras at the time of her hiring because driving was not a “major component” of her job. She had three points on her driving record when she was hired, according to DMV records.
“Let’s put some rules together regarding hiring procedures for our assistants,” Kelsey said. “If we adopted hiring regulations that are consistent with existing county rules, which included DMV background checks, we would be better served in the future and so would the community.”
Kelsey is the only other supervisor with a personal assistant, whose salary is budgeted for $5,000 a year. The assistant works three hours a week, Kelsey said, and doesn’t use a county vehicle.
“I’ve had good luck with the folks I’ve hired over the years, but I’ve also been diligent in getting to know them prior to hiring them,” Kelsey said. “I personally vetted them.”
When asked if the situation was an embarrassment to Merced County – the words written by Pedrozo – Kelsey concurred. “I think politically it is an embarrassment for Supervisor Pedrozo,” she said. “What’s embarrassing was how reluctant he was to take action once he discovered the depth of the situation.”
A local radio show host who took aim at the board earlier this week for not addressing the situation echoed Kelsey.
“It’s an embarrassment that we let ourselves get into this situation to begin with,” said Casey Steed, who’s made unsuccessful runs for supervisor in District 2. “While John showed leadership now, we expected that from him long ago.”
Steed said Pedrozo’s decision to cut ties with Valenzuela-Porras after a Sun-Star article uncovered his involvement in her legal troubles does not restore the public’s trust in him.
“This single move by itself does not regain the public’s trust. The public’s trust, once lost, is very hard to get back,” Steed said. “People see this kind of behavior and it holds us back. I think the good old boy system is alive in Merced and this, unfortunately, proves it.”
A political ethics expert who said it appeared Pedrozo used his position as an elected official to exert “undue influence” by writing a letter on county letterhead and intervening with a police traffic stop, said it’s hard to pinpoint Pedrozo’s motivation for the decision Friday.
“In one sense, it’s a good thing he did it, because it holds her accountable for her behavior and he took steps to correct the situation,” said April Hejka-Ekins, professor emeritus in the political science and public administration department of California State University, Stanislaus. “But I think he was certainly trying to clean up his image. This is an issue of motivation, and we don’t know what his motivation was.”
Cutting ties with Valenzuela-Porras may not be enough for Pedrozo to get back into the public’s good graces, she added.
“When people don’t act with integrity in their office, then the public loses trust in their actions,” Hejka-Ekins said. “I think going forward the proof of the pudding is if he’s going to live up to his public obligations and not act out of personal loyalty.”