VIRGINIA CITY -- An opinion on child care in the workplace has Storey County Deputy District Attorney Sharon Claassen in trouble with county commissioners.
The issue surfaced when a legal secretary employed in the Storey County District Attorney's Office wanted to keep her 2-month-old infant at work for a period of about three months.
Citing liability issues, Storey County commissioners nixed the idea, voting in December to establish a policy forbidding county employees from keeping their children with them in the workplace.
Claassen disagreed and, according to Commissioner Greg "Bum" Hess, threatened to drop some of Storey County's criminal cases.
"Since then, she has publicly apologized for not upholding the commissioners' decision, but it's insubordination when the commissioners are in charge of her employment," Hess said.
"We feel it is inappropriate to have an 8-week-old baby in the workplace and, at that time, Sharon Claassen threatened us with legal recourse. She was telling everyone our decision was not valid and I am not comfortable going to her for legal advice," Hess said at a county commissioner's meeting. "I feel Sharon Claassen's actions were so unprofessional that I don't think she should be a county employee, period."
During the debate, Claassen reinforced her argument with an opinion from Reno District Attorney Richard Gammick. Dated Dec. 6, the letter was written to Storey District Attorney Janet Hess.
"The board has no authority to direct the discretion of the public administrator as to the internal management of his office or as to policy decisions vested in him regarding the administration of his statutory responsibilities," Gammick wrote. "These are both matters bestowed upon the public administrator by the electorate. How the public administrator manages his office or administers his responsibilities is a matter to be decided at the voting booth.
"I would hope your commissioners would respect your office and not pursue this issue," he said. "Their authority, under both case law and practice, is limited to establishing the district attorney budget and the appropriation of funds for same."
"We're different than Washoe County," Greg Hess countered. "The District Attorney's Office is known as the most dangerous in Storey County. No one wants to see a mother and child separated, but is Sharon Claassen going to put her house up for collateral if we get sued?"
Janet Hess, who was on vacation at the time of the incident, supports the commissioners' decision.
"The commissioners decided they did not want to have children in the workplace in Storey County and they have a right to adopt that policy," she said. "I support women in the workplace, but this particular building is old and the commissioners have always taken strong control of it, overseeing every aspect of its renovation. It's just one of those situations, a balancing act at the office."
Carson City District Attorney Noel Waters said there are some legitimate liability concerns for babies that know how to crawl and for toddlers, but not necessarily for 2-month-old infants. And there is a level of support for letting employees have their children close, he said.
He also believes the issue could have been resolved without a policy debate. Nevertheless, he agreed with Janet Hess that the commissioners have the authority to make policy.
"The county commissioners hold the purse strings and they have a lot of oversight supervisory ability," he said. "They could write a policy applying to dress codes in the absence of a statute that says otherwise."
Storey County's four-person District Attorney's Office employs two full-time assistants and both attorneys work part-time. Janet Hess handles civil cases; Claassen handles criminal cases.
In a letter to the county commissioners dated Jan. 10, Claassen apologized for her conduct, citing pressures from a number of ongoing criminal cases. Her instructions that day were to convince the commissioners not to vote on this issue or at least postpone a vote pending further research and discussion. When the discussion went the opposite way, she launched on her "notorious speech."
"It is my hope that I can continue to serve Storey County and to the extent that my emotional flare jeopardized that goal, I most heartily apologize," she wrote.
Claassen's contract will be reviewed during an open session of the commissioners' meeting on Tuesday.
IF YOU GO
What: Storey County Commissioners Meeting
When: 10 a.m. Tuesday
Where: Storey County Courthouse, B Street, Virginia City