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The decision on how to replace Alameda County Chief Probation Officer Sylvia Johnson could become as controversial as the retiring department head herself. Johnson, 66, announced last week that she plans to step down as head of the county’s probation department on Jan. 31 to focus on private pursuits and her granddaughter. “I have enjoyed every moment of it,” said Johnson on Monday of her nine-year career as chief probation officer. She said she has particularly enjoyed watching young people who have been involved in probation department programs turn their lives around. But her tenure has been punctuated with problems. Two grand jury reports were critical of her department. Staff complaints that Johnson had a punitive and vindictive management style date back to 1994 — when the National Institute of Corrections in Washington, D.C., released a report that called for “immediate, planned and deliberate interventions.” Norm Santos, a 58-year-old deputy probation officer who is former president of the probation officers’ union — and a vocal critic of Johnson — said he’s ready to take the reins. “I have been the one who has stepped to the forefront” when problems surfaced in the probation department, Santos said, adding that he would try to restore “dignity” to the department and empower employees to make more decisions. An internal candidate could make changes happen faster at the department, said Santos, who has been in the department for 30 years. County Supervisor Gail Steele, who repeatedly clashed with Johnson, said she knows “five or six people,” including Santos, who would be interested in the job. “Norm would be one of the ones who would want to apply,” the supervisor said. While she praised the role that Santos played in shedding light on problems in the department, Steele said she would prefer to do a wide search for Johnson’s successor. “We can’t afford to make another mistake,” Steele said. Any decision about picking an interim head will have to wait until after today, when voters will vote on Measure C. If passed, it will give county supervisors the power to appoint and fire the probation chief. Currently, Johnson is supervised by Alameda County Superior Court Juvenile Presiding Judge Brenda Harbin-Forte, who is also one of her supporters. Harbin-Forte was out of the office Monday and unavailable for comment. Johnson’s critics are rejoicing the end of a reign that they say created deep divisions within the department and precipitated many employee departures. Johnson’s supporters, meanwhile, mourn the loss of an administrator who they say implemented needed changes. “It is amazing that she has stayed on so long,” said Oakland attorney Pamela Price, who praised Johnson for increasing the probation department’s budget. Johnson improved the administration of the department, which in the past would lay people off and would later have to rehire them, Price said. A list of accomplishments supplied by Johnson also shows that the department received several grants under her watch, including a $4 million grant to make needed repairs to Juvenile Hall. Price said the court, not the county — as measure C proposes — should oversee the probation department since the department serves the court. Political clashes probably took their toll on Johnson, who was “fighting for the children” and battling critics, Price said. “Sylvia was a visionary,” said Steele, who authored Measure C and an earlier measure that will give the next chief probation officer more oversight. “Too bad she didn’t have the other skills to go along with it.” In the last grand jury report that was released in 2000, then-Alameda County presiding judge edited out some criticism of Johnson and Harbin-Forte. That same year, Santos and the probation officers’ union called for a criminal investigation because they believed that the hundreds of minors on probation assigned to work in the dilapidated Fox Theatre had inhaled hazardous particles. Santos and other critics said Johnson had not responded to staff concerns about the building.

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