County lawyers are scrambling to review the county’s hiring processes in the wake of a large-scale release of emails by union leaders indicating that several political aides to members of the Board of Supervisors were apparently fast-tracked for positions in the county bureaucracy.
County supervisors and senior officials who have seen the emails acknowledge they present troubling evidence that the county hiring process may have been gamed by aides, department heads and even fellow supervisors.
“The emails do raise concerns that we should address and clarify,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman John Moorlach.
The 91-page batch of emails among department heads and human resources officials — obtained by the Orange County Employees Association via the California Public Records Act and released to local news media — provides a glimpse into the process that often occurs as supervisors face their last few months in office and their aides seek jobs within the bureaucracy.
In what has become a longstanding tradition at the county, both low-ranking and senior executive aides, called EAs, often move into the ranks of county employees when their political lives end.
The process has generated much controversy, with some executives privately complaining about directives that come from an outgoing supervisor that certain staffers be given jobs inside the bureaucracy for a variety of reasons.
But while some complain, others argue that aides bring many talents to agencies and that executives should be given latitude when it comes to recruiting and hiring key staff. They assert that those who have worked under supervisors possess a unique view of the political process and can help agencies navigate those waters and at a minimum have a good understanding of how elected leaders view issues.
“Are we saying you can’t have somebody who understands how the board works?” asked Campbell.
Campbell notes that a former EA, Alan Murphy, runs the county airport. Another, Steve Franks, runs county Community Resources. Mark Denny, a former Campbell chief of staff, runs OC Parks.
But the OCEA, which released the emails while in the midst of contract negotiations with the county, argues the emails reveal the hypocrisy of supervisors who talk of the need to cut paychecks and pensions for county workers while handing out jobs to their political underlings.
OCEA spokeswoman Jennifer Muir added that the emails bring into question whether the county’s hiring process, which is governed by civil service rules, is fair and unbiased.
It was “frightening how blatantly unfair yet acceptable the whole process was,” Muir said, referring to specific emails that showed members of the county Human Resources giving special perks to supervisors’ aides.
The emails include well-known names among the county Hall of Administration’s fifth floor.
There are emails among Human Resources officials detailing the competitive recruitment of Supervisor Pat Bates’ aide, Brian Probolsky, into county Community Resources. Probolsky’s hiring raised red flags, because his new position of business practices manager netted him an 80 percent raise.
Emails also show that Human Resources officials had to track down Matt Harper, an aide to Supervisor Janet Nguyen, while on a trip to South Korea in order to have him finish his job application for a position at county Waste & Recycling. Harper apparently was already taking vacation from his new job.
Harper wrote to Human Resources official Marguerite Adams on Sept. 20, 2011, from Seoul: “I was recommended to write to you regarding my personnel change to Waste & Recycling. I am currently in Seoul, Korea and will be returning to the United States at the end of the week.”
Adams wrote Harper two hours later on the morning of Sept. 20, saying she was concerned she had not heard from him.
“It is imperative that before a transfer to any department may occur that you complete a county transfer application demonstrating the minimum qualifications for the job classification,” Adams said.
Adams went on to warn Harper that “any work days between your return to the U.S. and your transfer to a new position would require you use of any annual leave that you may have on the books.”
The most startling chain of emails centers on the transfer of Campbell aide Whitney Ayers into the county Health Care Agency.
In emails reviewed by Voice of OC, staffers for agency Director Mark Refowitz essentially describe how as early as March 29 this year, Ayers would be put into an administrative manager position that wouldn’t be formally posted until May 24.
In one May 14 email, Health Care Agency executive Donnie Laplante, after being asked about the effective date that should be used for the Ayers job, wrote: “I don’t know for sure when the effective date will be at this point … last November maybe?:) Do you have a time machine?”
The job for Ayers was formally posted on May 24. Ayers accepted the position on July 16.
When asked by a reporter about the Ayer’s transfer, Refowitz held up his hand like a stop sign and said, “Talk to Steve Danley at county HR.”
Danley, who was named director of Human Resources in May after conducting critical audits of the department in his role as the county’s performance auditor, said the emails were troubling.
“Given what I’ve seen, it does call for a review and a development of a policy,” said Danley.
He acknowledged another concern of labor leaders — that state funds could be jeopardized if state merit selection rules for civil service jobs aren’t followed for programs using certain state dollars.
“It certainly does call out for the review we’re doing right now,” Danley said.
“The question we’re asking [County Counsel Nick Chrisos] now is in this specific case, with at-will executive assistants, do those rules apply and how?” Danley said. “That answer to that will be the basis of what our policy is.”
County Supervisor Pat Bates steadfastly defended Probolsky’s hiring as a competitive recruitment, adding that staff members in her office already follow a policy for transfers that conforms to state law.
“We have always followed a policy in my office,” Bates said. “And those who come to me when they want to transfer to another position, they have to go through the process like anybody else. Brian Probolsky’s name continues to come up in that discussion. He was in my office for close to two years and competed for three different jobs, finally got the last one.”
Bates added that she has prevented other types of transfers.
“I have not released a couple of other employees that individuals in other departments were attempting to recruit because they had not gone through that kind of vetting process.”
Bates said her policy could be the basis of a countywide approach and she “will share it with the board when we get to the point of putting some more specifics on paper.”
Campbell said Refowitz sought Ayers for his agency and noted that when he saw the job bulletin, he thought she was a perfect fit.
“Was it written for her? I’ll let you figure that out,” Campbell said, reiterating the point that managers should have freedom in hiring decisions. “People can define very tightly the kind of person they want. And that may or may not set up an individual for that position.”
Campbell went on to say that it’s a good process to have political aides move into the bureaucracy. They learn how it works and approach it with a special Orange County Republican view of limited government, he said.
“We’re fortunate to have those kinds of talented people,” Campbell said. “We should keep them.”
Yet Campbell also acknowledged that the emails didn’t paint a neat picture and the transfers need to be done in a more transparent way.
“I have always said we have to follow the rules around here. And so I think the rules were followed on a very technical basis. I would probably be in support of following the spirit as well as the technicality of them,” Campbell said.
“What I have learned is that there is apparently no formal policy on EAs applying to jobs in the country. I think we have to go on the record that they have to compete with everybody else.”
Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story indicated some county executives had privately complained that Supervisor Bill Campbell issued directives this year to have staffers from his office hired into the county bureaucracy. That is not the case.