As county Supervisor Bill Campbell enters his last few weeks in office, some of the remnants of his county staff are quietly finding their way into the county bureaucracy, raising questions about political patronage in a county known for its conservative approach toward public payrolls.
The latest transfers to attract attention include Campbell's deputy chief of staff, Christine Compton, who is being offered a job in the county’s legislative affairs unit for a posting that had been vacant for years, and the potential move of Campbell’s chief of staff, Laura Cunningham.
The debate over political aides moving into the county bureaucracy is a longstanding one.
Many argue that political aides have a unique set of skills and are an asset for county agencies.
A former county aide, Alan Murphy, runs the county airport. Another, Steve Franks, runs county Community Resources. Mark Denny, himself a former Campbell chief of staff, runs Orange County Parks.
Yet there are widespread concerns that the county has become overpoliticized with too many political aides obtaining lucrative jobs within the bureaucracy with little accountability.
This summer’s arrest of county executive Carlos Bustamante for alleged sex crimes has led to an aggressive questioning by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas over how Bustamante, who was also a Santa Ana city councilman, could have so many inappropriate contacts with female employees he supervised.
In October, the Orange County Employees Association further raised the stakes by releasing numerous emails obtained through the state’s public records act showing that several political aides to members of the Board of Supervisors were apparently fast tracked for positions in the county bureaucracy.
The emails also presented 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 Chairman John Moorlach at the time of the release.
OCEA continues to fight county officials over the release of emails going back a decade regarding the transfers of former executive aides.
Campbell, who Tuesday morning was honored at a farewell reception at the county Hall of Administration, said the county is lucky to have someone with Compton’s experience and education (an MBA from USC and law degree from Loyola) and noting that she interned with him during his stint in the state legislature and then put in eight years on Campbell’s county staff.
Compton declined comment, saying she had not yet accepted the position, which pays up to $131,123 annually. Cunningham confirmed that she had applied for a job inside the county bureaucracy but referred all other questions to Campbell, who didn’t return a call.
Moorlach supported Compton’s potential move. “I think she’s really sharp [and] a really great addition to the legislative staff for the county," he said.
Moorlach noted that he was “frustrated” over the county’s lack of effective legislative advocacy that resulted in the potential loss of $73 million in vehicle license fees last year, which has since triggered a state lawsuit against the county.
He sees Compton as key to re-energizing the county’s legislative advocacy program.
“There’s so much motion in Sacramento, and to have some eyes on that for the county is really critical,” Moorlach said.
Board Vice Chairman Shawn Nelson also doesn’t seem satisfied with the county’s legislative advocacy: “I think the entire legislative affairs department needs to be restructured.”
Though generally supportive of Compton’s appointment, Nelson said the public should always be skeptical.
“The real question is, are these honest and legitimate recruitments?” Nelson asked. "We need to have an understanding among all of us: There’s no crazy favors.”