When the Orange County Board of Supervisors sits down Tuesday for public interviews with nearly a dozen finalists for county clerk-recorder, no applicant faces tougher questioning than the department's interim leader, Renee Ramirez.
As a Latina Republican, Ramirez offers special appeal for the county's GOP, providing a countywide elective officeholder who can help reach out to Latinos at a critical time for the party.
Yet Ramirez — who took the helm last December after her predecessor, Democrat Tom Daly, was elected to the Assembly — is facing difficult questions from county supervisors. Several internal audits have criticized Daly’s handling of internal reserves, building purchases and a questionable consulting arrangement for Jordan Brandman, a Daly ally and Anaheim city councilman.
“I had to kind of immediately start to defend some of the processes and decisions that [Tom] made,” said Ramirez, a 22-year department veteran. She sat down with Voice of OC reporters last week to discuss the controversies swirling around her beleaguered department.
With Daly and Brandman gone from the office and avoiding reporters' questions, Ramirez — Daly's second in command for the past decade — has confronted on her own a series of audits and press inquiries in recent months.
On Tuesday, Ramirez will face these questions publicly. She'll have to persuade supervisors that she is a leader who knows the department inside and out but also someone who was kept out of the loop on key decisions.
If her comments to reporters are any indication, Ramirez will provide a harsh assessment of Daly's leadership.
While Ramirez said Daly “was good to me personally,” she was critical of his management style, saying that he made decisions on his own without involving senior officials. Senior staff meetings were a rarity, she said.
“It was Tom and one person,” she said. “Tom wanted to make the internal decisions solely.”
Ramirez said Daly also left behind a largely poisoned relationship with county supervisors along with strained office morale fueled by questionable consulting contracts, hirings and promotions.
For example, Ramirez said Daly never revealed to her a 2009 compliance review that found the department had been routinely splitting contracts to avoid going to the Board of Supervisors for spending approvals.
The first time Ramirez had seen the report is when a Voice of OC reporter showed it to her, she said last week.
Those kinds of consulting arrangements came under scrutiny in recent months after Voice of OC published a series of articles detailing a questionable sole-source contract awarded last year to Brandman, Daly's political ally, just as Brandman was gearing up his successful campaign for Anaheim City Councilman.
Under Daly’s direction, Brandman was paid in advance for a report on facilities expansion that languished for nearly a year without being finished.
Portions of the draft report, submitted by Brandman for contract payments, were heavily criticized for being inadequate and containing an entire section largely plagiarized from Wikipedia.
Ramirez signed off on the payments for draft work, triggering questions from supervisors John Moorlach and Todd Spitzer, who both criticized Brandman as being inappropriately compensated.
Ramirez said she didn't know the draft report was so incomplete. “I think it was bad on his [Brandman's] part. He should have taken the project more seriously.”
“I owed the citizens of Orange County to get their money’s worth,” she said.
When she found out, she said, she gave Brandman a tight deadline.
“I was mad. I was very upset. I was very hurt that [Brandman] would put me in that type of position,” Ramirez said. “I gave him a deadline. I said, 'I want it by Friday.' We had that conversation. … I said, 'Don't give me garbage.' ”
Brandman submitted the completed study March 22.
Ramirez said Brandman's final report — which studies whether western Orange County needs a clerk-recorder branch office — does provide some useful information. She pointed to its demographics and an analysis of the reduction in vehicle mileage resulting from a new office.
But the information most vital to deciding whether to open a new branch — a review of potential commercial real estate locations — is wholly inadequate, Ramirez said.
She said her lack of knowledge about the county’s internal audits into the office and the failures of the Brandman contract are key examples of Daly's management style.
Daly kept operations in the office separate with a different top staffer for human resources, operations and archives, she said. Ramirez handled operations.
“It wasn’t a team,” Ramirez said. “I definitely think that his [Daly’s] management style didn’t work well in this office in regards to how things were reviewed and approved.”
Ramirez acknowledged there are morale problems in the department stemming from little opportunity for promotion and general suspicion among workers about hiring and contracting done for purely political aims.
Ramirez has herself drawn fire from some employees in the clerk-recorder's office, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. In letters to the county's civil grand jury, they accused her of the same sort cronyism as Daly's.
For example, workers wrote that Ramirez had a hand in promoting her cousin, who works in the office.
Ramirez said that's not true. She said the promotion was granted by former Clerk-Recorder Gary Granville. “She doesn't work for me. There's a direct separation. … I've even asked that she be transferred to another department,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez said she has already moved to separate human resources functions from the clerk-recorder's office to address such concerns.
Yet there are broader communication problems Ramirez said she is trying to correct.
While Daly recommended Ramirez to take over as interim leader, supervisors didn’t even respond to his email.
“He rarely communicated with them,” Ramirez said. Daly’s relationship with the board of supervisors “wasn’t a positive relationship.”
Ramirez said she wants to change that and heighten transparency for the Board of Supervisors and the department's employees. She promised management team meetings and better communication with the board.
She pointed to her nearly daily memos to the board about the Brandman contract as evidence that she has already delivered on those commitments.
Ramirez said her biggest focus now is on completing a county audit of fund 12D, the restricted internal account that for years has drawn suspicion from county supervisors.
County Internal Auditor Peter Hughes recently told supervisors that auditors are scrambling to reconstruct the account's records to complete a report about the fund for this spring.
The results of a previous audit found that Daly and other county officials misled supervisors into buying a building for the clerk-recorder without telling the board that it needed renovations that would cost more than the building and that the true source of revenue for the purchase was fund 12D.
Daly issued a strong rebuke of the internal audit on his Assembly office stationary. He insisted that supervisors had been informed and scolded them for not asking more questions if they had doubts.
All of these issues, Ramirez said, “have to be dealt with, whether it’s me or somebody else.”
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