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Within his own office, one of the first things Peterson addressed after his election was the deep division among prosecutors. The majority of the county's prosecutors had been in the O'Malley camp during the election and there was a great deal of trepidation about how the new boss would treat them. The campaign had aggravated tension in the divided office to the point that a fistfight broke out between two senior prosecutors over a campaign issue. Post-election division among prosecutors also was the source of suspicion and lingering hostility. To calm the roiling waters, Peterson formed a twelve-member transition team that included a majority of O'Malley supporters. "It was a time to heal and I was looking for any opportunities to bring the office together," Peterson said.
Under the old regime, career advancement and job security were subject to a mysterious and arbitrary system that required young, ambitious prosecutors to have a talent for ring-kissing and a willingness to stab fellow prosecutors in the back. This was largely fostered by the office's mandate that each new attorney undergo a three-year probationary period. Contra Costa County is the only county in the state that has such a policy, and it has been criticized for turning competitive, ambitious attorneys into simpering sycophants and treacherous co-workers. "The idea is that the new hires are going to stay and be nurtured into seasoned attorneys, which benefits them, the office, and the taxpayer," former CoCo County Deputy District Attorney Michael Menesini told the Express in a 2009 interview. "In Contra Costa County, it's not nurture, it's torture. Contract attorneys will do almost anything to be hired and many are often hired not because they are qualified, but because they are good at palace politics."
The contract system is still in place, though Peterson said he would like to modify it. The system saves the county money because contract attorneys are paid less than their full-time co-workers and they do not receive pension benefits. "Now that the dust is settling, I'd like to look at maybe lowering it to two years," he said of the period that attorneys are on contract.
But Peterson also has had a few missteps. Shortly after his election, he promoted an O'Malley supporter, thinking it would put the office at ease, but the move backfired, causing more confusion and distrust. "What I learned is that the [deputy] DAs wanted more transparency in the promotion process; they wanted to know what was expected of them in order to move their careers along," he said.
As a result, Peterson has revamped the promotion polices for contract and permanent prosecutors so they are fairer and above board. And he restructured the evaluation process. Deputy DAs now get clear feedback on their performance based on management's clearly stated expectations. Prosecutors are also given a series of standards, in writing, that describe exactly what work levels are necessary to meet and exceed expectations. There is also internal career counseling to help prosecutors achieve their goals.
The promotion process also has been clearly spelled out and made much more transparent. Prosecutors seeking promotions submit an application and a résumé before being interviewed by a panel of five office attorneys. After the interview, the candidates are given specific reasons in writing as to why they were or were not promoted.
Since revamping the process, Peterson has promoted five prosecutors to a Level Four status, which is the highest pay grade achievable for a deputy DA. They were the first such promotions in five years, and four of the promotions went to women. The office now has more women on the management team than under any previous administration. "That is something that's needed to be done for a long time," Peterson said.
The management changes, however, were not enough for at least three prosecutors who filed lawsuits against him. All three prosecutors — Jill Henderson, David Brown, and Lucinda Simpson — were O'Malley supporters. Henderson, a fourteen-year veteran, claimed that Peterson demoted her because of her gender and in retaliation for supporting O'Malley during the election. She settled her case late last year for $135,000.
Brown, another veteran prosecutor, claimed in a complaint filed in federal court that Peterson demoted him several times because of his race and for his support of O'Malley. But Brown didn't have the best work history in the office and his case has not gone well. According to the Veritas Project, a watchdog group that tracks prosecutorial misconduct, Brown has been cited five times, the highest number of citations in California, for prosecutorial misconduct, and three of those cases resulted in reversals. Unfortunately for Brown, he chose to represent himself, and US District Court Judge Phyllis Hamilton dismissed the majority of his claims, citing a lack of relevant detail. However, she said he could pursue three of his claims, provided he can file an amended complaint that cogently presents the facts in relation to his assertions. Simpson's lawsuit, meanwhile, has gained the least amount of traction of the three. Simpson quit her job as prosecutor some time ago and then filed a lawsuit claiming retaliation after she reapplied for her job and was not rehired.
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