Former Insider Describes County’s Fast Track to Promotion

Kathleen Tahilramani
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Part three of a three-part series. Read parts one and two.

A longstanding issue in Orange County government has been the ease in which political aides of supervisors seem able to transition in and out of the county bureaucracy and the general lack of accountability over their actions.

In the last of a three-part interview with Voice of OC, former county human resources manager Kathleen Tahilramani reflected on the two political transfers into the department that occurred while she oversaw job recruitment.

Tahilramani was at the department during the transfers of county Supervisor Pat Bates’ chief of staff, Chip Monaco, and supervisors’ Chairman Shawn Nelson’s current chief of staff, Denis Bilodeau, also a city councilman in Orange.

From her viewpoint as the head of human resources or HR, placements of Bilodeau and Monaco were prime examples of how politics trumps sound hiring policy when it comes to the well-connected, Tahilramani said.

Neither Monaco nor Bilodeau responded to requests for on-the-record interviews. County officials also have declined to address Tahilramani’s claims, saying only that a private law firm investigated them and found nothing worth disclosing. Officials have declined to release the report.

Bilodeau and Monaco are certainly not alone. The transfer list of Republican operatives from political jobs on the fifth floor of the county Hall of Administration to county departments in recent years is long.

Huntington Beach City Councilman Matt Harper quietly transferred from the office of Supervisor Janet Nguyen to a public affairs post inside Waste & Recycling.

When Supervisor Chris Norby won elected to the Assembly, Bilodeau moved from Norby’s fifth floor staff to Waste & Recycling for a six-week stint that coincided with his volunteer efforts on the campaign of then Fullerton Councilman Shawn Nelson. Bilodeau would later go on to become Nelson’s chief of staff.

Aliso Viejo Mayor Pro Tem Phil Tsunuda moved from Norby’s office to the clerk-recorder’s office, eventually ending up at the county’s managed health care plan for the poor and elderly, CalOptima.

Moulton Niguel Water District Board Member Brian Probolsky moved relatively quickly from Supervisor Pat Bates’ office to Community Resources.

County supervisors have defended the practice of moving political aides to the county bureaucracy, saying it’s valuable to have staffers who understand both the political and policy implications of official decisions.

County Chief Administrative Officer Mark Denny was once an aide to then Supervisor Bill Campbell. Steve Franks, who now heads Community Resources, was one-time chief of staff to then Supervisor Jim Silva. Alan Murphy, who runs John Wayne Airport, also was a former supervisor’s aide.

Yet critics have argued that the supervisorial perk of moving political aides into civilian jobs jeopardizes worker morale and often violates state job recruitment laws.

Last year, a series of emails released through public records requests detailed a disturbing trend of aides being fast tracked for jobs.

Tahilramani saw all this first hand and is willing to speak to it.

Q: You’ve talked about executive aides of county supervisors moving into the bureaucracy. How did that work when you were in HR, where several political aides transitioned into the agency? For example, Chip Monaco. What was his move from Bates’ office into county Waste & Recycling like?

A: Chip [Monaco] called Mike [Giancola], and they made a deal, along with Supervisor [Pat] Bates, that Chip would transition from an EA [executive assistant] position to an “admin two” position in OC Waste & Recycling. I was told to hold an old list open where he was on the A list, and they did a review of written records and plucked him from that list. That, again, was predetermined.

Mike will take any EA. … He told me, he said, “I will take any EA that they want me to take, because that’s how you co-opt them.”

Q: The Supervisors?

A: Uh-huh.

Q: What was Monaco like? Was he qualified or not? I know he had been there before.

A: I would say that Chip was qualified, and I just know that he has difficulties with interpersonal relationships. He still wears his EA hat a lot, and you can’t do that in a department.

Q: What do you mean?

A: In other words, EAs are used to ordering people around and telling them what to do. Yet when now you’re an administrative manager in a department and you behave the same way you’re going to rankle people.

Q: So his recruitment was illegal?

A: I would say it’s technically legal. Ethically, not so much. It violates the spirit. You hold your nose while you do it.

Q: Another executive aide, Orange City Councilman Denis Bilodeau, worked at OC Waste & Recycling. What was your sense of his time there?

A: Never met him. Had an office two or three doors down from mine, I never saw him.

Q: Yet Bilodeau has often told reporters he had a supervisor there that was very strict and made him work very hard?

A: That same supervisor came to me and represented that he was incredibly uncomfortable signing Mr. Bilodeau’s time sheets because he never saw him.

I went to Mike and said we’ve got a situation, that we’ve never seen this guy and I’m here every day and the supervisor’s balking at signing the time sheets because he’s concerned about what is this guy doing.

Mike told me, ‘Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it.’

Q: He was only there for about six weeks or so?

A: Right.

Q: And you never saw him?

A: Never saw him.

Q: The picture that you paint of the county is one where EAs transition from the political side to the civilian side. A completely politicized environment is what you describe.

A: The regrettable thing that I would say to the average taxpayer is, if you have a son or daughter that aspires to a county job, those positions are taken. The hard-working people in this county that are educated and really want to work and do community service are shut out.

Q: Aren’t there certain things when it comes to HR where you’re not supposed to do that — rigging recruitments and so forth?

A: Yes, and you try your best. I became a master of how far to stretch the rubber band without it slapping me back in the face. You can be as crafty and as clever as you want to be until it crosses that line that you cannot step over. And that’s where as an HR manager you have to make your decision: Am I going to myself be co-opted, knowing full well when that yellow school bus runs right over the tracks and you’re underneath it no one’s going to save you, or do you do the right thing?

Please contact Norberto Santana Jr. directly at nsantana@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/norbertosanana.

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