A Fighter Steps Out of the Ring

OCEA General Manager Nick Berardino at an Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting.

OCEA General Manager Nick Berardino at an Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting.

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Editor’s note: This article and its accompanying audio clips contain explicit language.

It was a summer’s afternoon in 1964 and 15-year-old Nick Berardino was sprawled out on a couch in the living room of his parents’ South Central Los Angeles home listening to a buddy of his talk about a protest scheduled for later that day.

The NAACP had sent an African American couple with the necessary income and credit to make an offer on a home in a nearby neighborhood. But, as expected, the white owners had refused to sell to them.

So, his buddy said, they were going to do a sit-in.

“I remember saying ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with that.’ I just wanted to lie on my couch,” says Berardino more than a half-century later from his office at the Orange County Employees Association (OCEA) headquarters in Santa Ana.

But his friend was persistent and played a card he knew would work. “Nick, I’m telling you, at these things — I’ve been to them — there are a lot of hot girls.”

Several hours later, Berardino and his buddy were in the back of a paddy wagon. The cops had busted up the sit-in and shown no mercy on the protesters. For hours, as Berardino describes it, they sat in the stifling hot, windowless van baking in the puke and piss left by the previous night’s drunks.

As the son of working-class Italian immigrants who had spent his childhood in South Central, Berardino certainly had a sense of how the police wielded their power on the street. But until that day at the sit-in he had never felt it delivered in such a swift and cruel fashion.

“It opened my eyes to injustice in a way that I’d never seen it before,” he said. “Doing this because we come here and sit? Because someone who is another color wants to live in this place? It just struck me — it was incredible.”

Looking back, Berardino is convinced those hours in the paddy wagon set him on a path that led him not only deeper into the Civil Rights struggle but ultimately to the labor movement. And, he says, that feeling of injustice stayed with him and helped fuel his drive to build OCEA into Orange County’s largest and most far-reaching public sector union.

The Berardino era is coming to an end Friday. The 67-year-old will step down after more than four decades at OCEA, the last dozen as its general manager. He leaves a legacy that touches all corners of Orange County and stretches to Sacramento.

Berardino was a counselor in the county’s probation department when he joined OCEA in 1973. The union represented 5,000 workers and had fewer than 10 full-time employees, and an annual budget of less than $150,000. Its headquarters was a trailer in a parking lot on downtown Santa Ana’s Ross Street.

Today OCEA represents 18,000 workers countywide, employs more than 30, and has a budget in the millions. Its political action committee, which started with $4,000 in the early 1980s, is now regularly in the six figures.

Behind the so-called Orange Curtain of one of the nation’s most conservative counties, the union has become a progressive force, not only for workers’ rights but also for the rights of immigrants, underserved communities and the freedom of the press.

Berardino has been the chief architect of the union’s rise to power. And along the way has become every bit the polarizing figure that one would expect in an environment as ideologically charged as Orange County politics.

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Berardino (right) with OCEA Assistant General Manager Jennifer Muir and Gov. Jerry Brown. (Photo by Norberto Santana Jr./Voice of OC)

His supporters describe him as fiercely loyal and a tireless fighter for working-class people both in an out of the county government. They also say he is one of the most astute political players in recent county history.

“Nick has made tremendous contributions,” said former state Sen. Lou Correa. “He’s reshaped the face of Orange County politics.”

His detractors have called him a shameless grandstander and a bully. Chief among them is Republican State Sen. John Moorlach, who questions whether Berardino’s efforts have done anything to benefit the county at large.

“Maybe he was having too much fun being an over-the-top union person,” said Moorlach, who for the better part of a decade was Berardino’s chief rival on the Board of Supervisors. “But I’m not finding anything he did to improve the way the county operates.”

And some former allies in the activist community have in recent years accused him of selling out the progressive causes that he has championed throughout his life for the right political deal.

But even Berardino’s harshest critics admire, however grudgingly, the passion and intensity he’s brought to his side of the fight.

With a shaved head, prominent nose and barrel chest, Berardino looks the part of a pugilist. And his love of boxing — which he’s done since he was a boy — has been apparent to anyone who’s seen the iconic shot of Muhammad Ali standing over Sony Liston in 1965 that adorned the back wall of his office.

Also hard to miss have been the photo of Martin Luther King and his collection of swords: including one from the Marine Corps, two samurai swords and one from a Kenyan Maasai warrior. They are cues that understanding Berardino requires an understanding of what he experienced during his youth in inner city Los Angeles and his time in Vietnam.

*

Berardino’s grandfather, Sam Grasso, brought his family to Los Angeles via Chicago in the 1930s. And during the 1950s, when an influx of African-American families sparked the “white flight” to the suburbs, Grasso stayed in his South Central neighborhood.

“My parents wanted to join the white flight,” Berardino said. “But my grandfather didn’t have any problems with the changes. He liked it when the Italians were living there, and he liked it when a lot of them left.”

His grandfather’s stubbornness had the unintended consequence of putting Berardino at the epicenter of the Civil Rights movement on the West Coast. Following the 1964 sit-in, he thrust himself into community organizing and was just blocks away when the Watts riots broke out in August of 1965.

None of this made his parents happy.

“They sent me to a fuckin’ shrink,” he said. “Then they sent me to a black minister my father knew, and he told me to get out. He said it was too treacherous for white people.”

The minister wasn’t kidding about the risks. “I got kicked. I got spit on. I got hit with a baton,” Berardino said. “I got called ‘nigger lover’ over and over and over and over again by white cops — that was their favorite phrase.”

But, he said, along with all that abuse came one of the most important lessons of his life.

“I learned from that movement that we have rights, and we have the right to assert those rights,” he said. “Just because someone is an elected official, it doesn’t make them right. It doesn’t make them honest. It doesn’t make them the kind of people who are going to do the right thing. You don’t have to respect them. You have to be confrontational when it’s right to be confrontational. Otherwise your voice will not be heard.”

The movement had found a good soldier, and a willing one. Rabble rousing was something that came naturally to the young Berardino. And there was certainly a lot of that to be done in late 1960s America.

Berardino (bottom left) with squad members in Vietnam.

Berardino (bottom left) with squad members in Vietnam.

But as so often happens with young people, and especially during that era, his life took an unexpected turn. In 1967, with the specter of being drafted hanging over him, Berardino signed up for the Marine Corps. And before the year was out had landed in Vietnam.

He ended up in one of the northern-most regions of South Vietnam, near the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, which saw some of the fiercest fighting during that period of the war. Some of the more famous battles during his time there included Khe Sanh, Monkey Mountain and Hill 881. On his first patrol — just a couple days after he arrived — the soldier on point hit an anti-personnel mine.

“I saw him blow 10 feet into the air, like a little rag doll,” he said. “It all became very, very real. This wasn’t training, This wasn’t TV. This was people with real blood, real screaming, real crying… people calling for their mothers.”

Berardino was ultimately put on Special Landing Forces, which today is called Marine Expeditionary Unit. They are the Marines dropped in by helicopter when another group gets in trouble.

“[We were] engaged almost all the time,” he said. “The first three or four months, we were in two or three firefights a week. My last six months — everyday.”

When he was sent home in May 1968, Berardino says his body was still encrusted with the red clay soil common to the northern region of South Vietnam. He slept in his parent’s yard his first night home. After living for a year in a foxhole, he couldn’t fall asleep in a bed.

He was in constant pain —and still is — from an ankle that he injured severely while on a reconnaissance mission. He also continues to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which he acknowledges has affected his relationships both at work and home.

“When I came back from the war, I was a completely different person and I haven’t been the same since,” he said. “Harder edge, had a hard time feeling happy… I was resentful because my leg was so badly hurt. I was in pain. I remain in pain to this day. Every single minute, every single day.”

Along with the physical pain and PTSD, Berardino suffers from a survivor’s guilt and harbors an intense loyalty to the men he fought with. It comes across so strong that one gets the sense every battle he has fought since he came home from Vietnam has been as much for them as anyone else.

He’s not aware of any other member of his squad who is still alive, many of them lost to suicides and alcoholism. “They’re all gone, I’m the last man standing,” he says. “It means I’m their voice.”

*

Berardino describes himself as somewhat aimless after being discharged from the Marines in August of 1968. Still only 20, he worked odd jobs, including a stint as a presser in a garment factory and as an x-ray technician at Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital in Inglewood. Meanwhile, he was using the GI Bill to pay for classes at Cal State Dominguez Hills, where he eventually graduated with a degree in sociology.

He says a greedy landlord pushed him south to Orange County.

It was 1972, and he and his first wife were living in a two-bedroom apartment on La Cienega Boulevard. The landlord raised the rent to $150 a month, which Berardino — along with the rest of the complex’s tenants — considered highway robbery.

Berardino went to the landlord with his beef and started by demanding new carpet if he was going to pay that kind of rent. The landlord refused. So he decided to launch a rent strike. It was his first attempt at leading a boycott on his own. It failed miserably.

“I got my ass thrown out and couldn’t get anybody except this guy who used to play in the Michigan marching band to sign the petition,” he said. “Everybody else who was sitting around this shitty pool bitching about the rent increase — none of them would sign it.

“But it was a great lesson. You know, [a] thing you learn about community organizing is you can get left hanging out there… I got left out there. The only two guys who got thrown out were me and the guy from the Michigan marching band — the only two to get fucking flopped!”

As his forced departure from the La Cienega apartment was becoming increasingly imminent, a friend told Berardino he should head down to Orange County, where the mortgage payment on a house would be about the same as the rent he was objecting to. He took the advice and he and his wife ended up buying a home in Fountain Valley.

It wasn’t long, however, before he got sick of the commute to LA and started looking for work closer to home. A neighbor said the county probation department was looking for people. He applied and was hired as a group counselor. It was 1973.

*

Berardino had only been at the probation department for about six months when OCEA’s chief steward approached him. At the time, OCEA — like many other public employee unions nationwide — was in the midst of a sea change, and leadership was looking for new blood.

Throughout the first half of the 20th Century, public employee unions were little more than loose associations with few legal rights. That began to change in 1959 when Wisconsin became the first state to pass a collective bargaining law for public employees.

Then in 1961, New York City Mayor Robert Wagner, who was facing a bruising re-election fight, became the first public official to make legalizing public sector unions a campaign promise. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy, with his razor-thin victory in 1960 still fresh in his mind, signed Executive Order 10988 granting public sector union membership.

California’s public employees won the right to collectively bargain in 1968, when Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act.

“It was definitely part of the larger social movement going on,” said Karen Boroff, a professor emeritus at Seton Hall University’s Stillman School of Business and expert on the union movement. “People were fighting for more rights in the workplace.”

Berardino was exactly what OCEA was looking for.

In addition to his years in the civil rights movement, he had done some low-level work for an LA-area congressman named Charles Wilson. And the union, though still operating out of a trailer on its Ross Street property (the building would be completed the following year), was ready to take things to the next level.

The 26-year-old Berardino was more than happy to be a part of that. He was very active right off the bat and by the end of 1974 was a steward serving on OCEA’s council of representatives.berardino4072815

Then in 1976 he got his first big break. OCEA’s leadership wanted to jump into the political ring and run a county employee for a seat on the Board of Supervisors. They tapped Berardino to run the campaign.

The union’s candidate was a county engineer named Fred Singer. They put him up against incumbent Democrat Phil Anthony. And though Anthony would be indicted (along with fellow Supervisor Ralph A. Diedrich) later that year on charges of campaign finance corruption, he was a well-known figure with a considerable war chest. In short, Singer never had a chance.

“We got our asses kicked — it was impossible for us to raise money,” Berardino remembers. “[But] even though we lost… they had to pay attention to us.”

More importantly for OCEA’s long-term future, Berardino had found his calling. By 1978, he had joined the union full-time and was establishing himself as both a charismatic organizer and an astute political player. They were qualities that would be put to the extreme test in the coming years as he faced a hostile takeover bid.

*

By the early 1980s, organizing public employees had become big business. While private sector union membership was well into a half-century long decline, many other states had legalized public sector unions and the race was on to capture the growing market in dues-paying public servants.

One of the two largest players among public employee unions was, and still is, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Founded in 1932 in Madison, Wisconsin by a group of state employees, the union had grown to more than one million members by 1980. It had also developed an insatiable appetite for expansion, and had fed that appetite by gobbling up smaller unions.

Today, OCEA is affiliated with the AFL-CIO — the country’s largest federation of labor unions — and Article 20 of the AFL-CIO constitution forbids one member union from launching a takeover bid on another. But in 1981 OCEA was an independent. And situated in booming Orange County, it was a juicy target.

Part of AFSCME’s takeover strategy was to lure away the top leadership of a union it was targeting with fat salaries. That started happening at OCEA in early 1981. By July, the only members of the leadership team left were General Manager John Sawyer, his son, John Sawyer Jr., who was legal counsel, and Berardino.

Berardino knew that turning down AFSCME’s offer meant he had a war on his hands. So he decided to launch a counter-offensive.

All union contracts have what is called an open period that ranges from 6 months to a year. During that period, it generally only takes 30 percent of the employees to sign a petition and a vote can be held on whether to decertify the current union. If the decertification vote is successful, then the door is open for a new union to step in.

In 1979, AFSCME had successfully taken over the county’s blue-collar unit, which represented operations, service and maintenance employees. Berardino’s strategy was to take it back with a show of force that would rally his troops and give AFSCME second thoughts about embarking on raids of other bargaining units.

He started by going up and down the state and asking leaders of other municipal unions to join him in his petition drive. He invited them to stay at his parents’ house and made them huge pots of spaghetti. The next morning they went out and hit every location that AFSCME had in that unit. In one day 30 percent had signed the petition.

“They fucking went nuts,” Berardino said of the AFSCME leadership when they found out about the petition drive.

“They said we couldn’t beat them in the election. I thought…you ain’t going to win no goddamn election either.’ I worked from October through January…never took a day off. We won the election. Stopped them cold.”

Although Sawyer was still the general manager, the AFSCME victory put Berardino in charge. Over the next several years there would be 29 more takeover attempts from AFSCME and Service Employees International Union (SEIU). OCEA would win 26 of them, Berardino said.

*

The next two decades would be an unprecedented period of growth for OCEA — both in numbers and political power. And Berardino developed a reputation as not only a hard-nosed negotiator, but also a consensus builder with the political acumen to travel in many circles.

“I don’t remember any negotiations where we didn’t get a deal with Nick,” said Jim Ruth, who sat on the other side of the table from Berardino as both the city manager of Anaheim in the 1990s and Orange County’s CEO in the early 2000s. “Once it was done, it was done. It never became personal.”

Berardino on a picket line. (OCEA file photo)

Berardino on a picket line. (OCEA file photo)

He was even able to keep raises in place for his members in the aftermath of Orange County’s 1994 bankruptcy, the largest municipal default in U.S. history. But while the bankruptcy may not have hurt the union at the time, it did give rise to a Costa Mesa accountant named John M. W. Moorlach.

Moorlach had predicted the county’s financial debacle during his race that year for county Treasurer-Tax Collector against incumbent Democrat Robert Citron. Moorlach charged that Citron was putting the county’s finances at risk through highly leveraged bets on municipal bonds. Though he would lose the 1994 election to Citron, his warnings proved spot on.

Interest rates spiked, and Citron’s scheme unraveled in spectacular fashion. By 1995, Citron had resigned in disgrace and was facing felony charges. Moorlach was appointed to replace Citron in March of 1995 and then elected to the post in 1996.

Moorlach represented a new breed of Republican politician that rose to prominence in the early 2000s: the public employee fighter.

Tension between public and private sector workers was nothing new. But there had always been an understanding in American life that if you wanted job security and benefits, and were willing to make $10,000 less a year, you chose a job like teacher or county engineer.

“There was no resentment,” said Lee Adler, an expert on the labor movement who teaches at Cornell University. “But then in the decade prior to the Great Recession there became increasingly sharp attacks against public sector unions, and an argument began to take hold that public sector unions had become a dangerous political force.”

It was a narrative that Moorlach played to the hilt in 2004 as the county was negotiating a new contract with OCEA that included a pension enhancement known as “2.7 @ 55.” The new deal meant that upon eligibility for retirement, the pension benefit of county workers would be equal to 2.7 percent of the average of their final three years of salary multiplied by each year of their service.

Moorlach decried the deal as an irresponsible giveaway and made it one of the centerpieces of his 2006 campaign for county supervisor.

The numbers he used to back up his argument were compelling. Between the 2000-01 and 2004-05 fiscal years, the county’s contribution to employee retirement funding increased by nearly 300 percent, according to a grand jury report. And the county retirement system’s unfunded pension liability, which represents its expected future shortfall, had reached into the billions.

Moorlach does credit Berardino with agreeing to the so-called “reverse pick-up,” which requires employees to cover increased costs generated by the 2.7 @ 55 deal. And he worked with supervisors to reduce the retiree medical unfunded liability by $1 billion. He has faced criticisms from some employees for both of those deals.

“Nick should not have been so aggressive in trying to get such a big pension boost,” said Moorlach, who is now a state senator, in a recent interview. “Because it has made raises almost non-existent…I would say over that past 11 years, many of Nick’s members have become quietly upset with him.”

Berardino confronts Mario Mainero, chief of staff to Supervisor John Moorlach while OCEA legal counsel Don Droozd looks on.

Berardino confronts Mario Mainero, chief of staff to Supervisor John Moorlach while OCEA legal counsel Don Droozd looks on. (OCEA file photo)

Regardless of the merits of Moorlach’s arguments, the vitriol that he and other local Republicans were directing at public employees was something that OCEA had not experienced before. The fight had gotten ugly and it was bringing out the ugliness in Berardino.

“We’ve always had tension,” Berardino said. “But it wasn’t until we had some people who were so hateful [who said] ‘We don’t want to have a fair boxing match and in the end we come to an agreement’. It was ‘let’s destroy these people.'”

It was at that point, he says, that his tactics began changing. “It was ‘OK, we’ll play as hard as you play.’ ”

*

Among Berardino’s lessons learned from the Fred Singer loss in 1976, was that you don’t win political battles without political money. So in 1981, after beating back AFSCME, he convened a conference of his stewards on the Queen Mary in Long Beach Harbor and convinced them to start a political action committee.

OCEA’s PAC began, literally, with a passing of a hat onboard the ship — Berardino remembers it being a white Stetson. The PAC’s opening balance was about $4,000. Millions more would be collected over the next quarter century, and in the mid-2000s OCEA would start directing a lot of that money toward attack ads.

The spending reached its apex during OCEA’s 2011 fight with the Costa Mesa City Council. At that point, the country was in the depths of the Great Recession and the Republican rancor against public employees had reached unprecedented levels.

In Madison, Wis., the birthplace of the modern public sector union, Republican Gov. Scott Walker created a national firestorm with a budget plan aimed at destroying the collective bargaining rights of the state’s public employee unions. Meanwhile, Costa Mesa’s Republican council majority, led by Councilman Jim Righeimer, was attracting national attention with a plan to outsource the majority of city services.

On St. Patrick’s Day, 2011, Costa Mesa began implementing its plan by issuing layoff notices to more than 200 city employees. One of those employees was a 29-year-old maintenance worker named Huy Pham. That afternoon, after receiving his notice, Pham climbed to the roof of City Hall and jumped to his death.

The cordoned-off area at Costa Mesa City Hall where city employee Huy Pham jumped to his death. (Photo by: Adam Elmahrek)

The cordoned-off area at Costa Mesa City Hall where city employee Huy Pham jumped to his death. (Photo by: Adam Elmahrek/Voice of OC)

News of Pham’s suicide sent Berardino into a frenzy. He raced down to the City Hall and had to be physically restrained by the police chief as he screamed at the city’s CEO. Over the next couple days, members of the council majority were accosted so bitterly by employees that they had to be escorted by police off city grounds.

Within a week of the suicide, OCEA ran a highly produced and extremely dark television ad that directly blamed city officials for Pham’s death.

Berardino faced considerable flack for the ad, mainly from Republicans who focused on the fact that Pham had suffered from emotional problems and that cocaine was in his system on the day of his suicide.

“I couldn’t believe he took the suicide of an employee and used it politically,” Righeimer said. “I completely detested the guy.”

Recently, however, Righeimer’s tone has changed. “Over the years I’ve gained a lot more respect for Nick,” he said. “We ended up negotiating a contract that was extremely fair to the citizens of Costa Mesa.”

During the tumultuous years of the Great Recession and its aftermath, Berardino increasingly injected himself into the politics of  cities where OCEA represented employees. In 2012, he was severely criticized by activists in Anaheim for funding a grassroots effort to pass an ordinance restricting subsidies for luxury hoteliers, only to pull the plug on the funding after he and the city’s Republican council majority reached a deal on a labor contract.

It was also widely rumored that the pull back from the ordinance push, known as the Take Back Anaheim campaign, was also related to an agreement between Berardino and Disneyland to take it easy on each other’s candidates in that year’s city council election.

“I was extremely disappointed,” said Larry Larsen, the spokesman for Take Back Anaheim. “He cut our legs out from under us — it was betrayal.”

Berardino’s rhetoric in recent years has routinely reached a fever pitch, and in one case his actions bordered on violence. In January of last year, county officials filed an assault complaint against him, stemming from threats he made during a negotiating session.

“Mr. Berardino verbally abused and physically threatened with violence members of the county’s negotiating team,” wrote then-county CEO Mike Giancola.

Berardino acknowledges the intensity of his actions in recent years, but says he has no regrets and has had nothing but the full support of his members.

“I’m a voice for my members,” he said. “And, you know, they were attacking our members. And if they ever do it again, with me not being present, I hope that OCEA will double down and do it twice as hard.”

Berardino’s sentiments are echoed by Jennifer Muir, OCEA’s assistant general manager and his heir apparent.

“Nick is maniacal, he’s obsessive,” Muir said. “[But] he’s so committed and intense about the work that you can’t help but get caught up in it. Talk to everyone at OCEA and they’ll say he inspires everyone on staff.”

*

The only thing Berardino will openly acknowledge having second thoughts about over the past decade was his decision in 2009 to provide seed funding to a locally based nonprofit news organization. It became known as Voice of OC and OCEA remains one of its funders.

Voice of OC’s origins can be best described as what happens when you pair a recalcitrant and outspoken Italian American with a recalcitrant and outspoken Cuban American.

Norberto Santana Jr. had covered Berardino for years as the Orange County Register’s county reporter. The two had developed a mutual respect stemming from their working class immigrant backgrounds and a shared love for the rough and tumble of politics.

In mid 2009 Berardino was still embittered over a protracted and ultimately losing battle against layoffs at the county. And he was growing increasingly frustrated with news coverage that he considered slanted against public employees. Meanwhile, Santana, who was known as an extremely aggressive reporter, was routinely butting heads with the higher-ups in the Register newsroom and chafing at what he described as the “corporatization of news.”

For a while they had been talking about the wave of nonprofit newsrooms that had sprung up nationwide in the aftermath of mass layoffs in newsrooms brought on by the Great Recession. It had begun as just idle talk between a reporter and his source, but had become more serious as each had become more disenchanted with their respective situations.

Santana’s situation reached a breaking point the day he had to go on a weeklong furlough, something the Register was asking of all its employees at the time. Making matters worse, he was getting flack from Register editors regarding his coverage of Sheriff Sandra Hutchens.

Berardino and Santana talked that day as they were both driving home from work. Santana was ready to quit the Register. “I remember I was turning onto Bake Parkway, when I said ‘lets do it,'” Berardino said.

That was all Santana needed to hear — by the following week he had turned in his resignation and began telling people he was starting up Orange County’s first independent nonprofit news organization.

The terms of the deal were simple. OCEA would be a funder and Voice of OC would provide daily county government coverage. However, there would be a hard firewall between the newsroom and the union. Berardino wouldn’t be able to order up stories, nor would he be able to kill stories. In fact, he wouldn’t even be told what stories were running when.

Despite those strict terms, Berardino was game. His thinking was that as long as Voice of OC would cover the county in a straightforward way and give all sides a voice in its stories, OCEA would be better off than it was with just the Register covering the county.

He says he remembers making his final decision on the funding during a lunch with Santana. They were sitting across from each other and Berardino was fiddling with a saltshaker. “What would happen if I ran away with a million dollars — would Voice write about that?” Berardino asked, sliding the saltshaker across the table.

“Let me just tell it to you this way Nick,” he remembers Santana saying while he slid the saltshaker back across the table. “As far as Voice is concerned, you’d be fucked.”

At that point, Berardino says, “I knew this guy was going to tell the truth. And as long as he was telling the truth…90 percent of the time I’m not going to regret it.”

But what he now admits he didn’t realize was the true power of a media organization and how much it touches people. “I didn’t know my phone, from that day on…would never stop ringing with complaints, with threats” from politicians and power brokers that Voice of OC was writing about, he said. “I never knew it would reach that level!”

“That’s why there will never be a next time. But if there ever is — here’s a million bucks — leave me alone and never mention my name again. And that’s because people are vicious when the truth is told about them…I’m the same way…when you guys write about me, I get vicious too because I don’t like it.”

But despite all the viciousness, Santana said Berardino has stayed true to his word.

“I’ve almost found it stunning that the deal has held given how much firepower has been put on OCEA,” Santana said. “But Nick is a person who enjoys the battle, especially when the truth is at stake. He understands that without an umpire calling balls and strikes, the game of politics turns into a free-for-all.”

*

Berardino (right) with Muir.

Berardino (right) with Muir.

For the past few weeks, Berardino has been gradually packing up his office. The Ali poster has been taken down along with the MLK picture and the many framed recognitions and mementos of a long public life. The swords have also been packed away.

If he’s depressed about stepping down, he’s doing a good job of hiding it. The overwhelming sense you get from him is one of relief. And he’s excited about his third act. He’s a member of the Orange County Fair Board and will be a part-time consultant for OCEA for at least a couple years.

Veterans’ causes will be the main beneficiary of his newfound free time. As a Fair Board member, he’s leading the charge to establish Heroes’ Hall at the fairgrounds, which will be the county’s first large-scale veterans’ museum.

The choice of Muir as his successor is a gutsy one. She’s just 35, and only five years ago was the Register’s county government reporter. But Berardino said he’s supremely confident in her abilities and knows that the time has come for him to go.

“My old-school tactics worked for a long time — and they built a union,” he said. “But the workforce has changed. Younger people need a younger voice.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that John Moorlach was elected Treasurer-Tax Collector in 1995 after Robert Citron resigned following the 1994 bankruptcy. Moorlach was appointed to the post in 1995 and then elected in 1996. 

Please contact David Washburn directly at dwashburn@voiceofoc.org.

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  • OCservant_Leader

    Yea – Moorlach had such a knack for picking scumbags. What a double-talking trough feeder.

    I’m so glad he moved onto his basement office at the Capitol – where he will be silenced forevermore.

    • David Zenger

      I don’t think he has much judgment when it comes to assessing people who profess Christianity. He just buys in.

      • OCservant_Leader

        Right as long as they worship the Bible and Greed equally they pass the test.

        I can’t wait to see his payout–I will put it between the $100K and $200k mark. Over $200K he gets on the “Special ” list and that wouldn’t be prudent as a anti- government-welfare guy.

        • David Zenger

          His payout will be big and he never wanted to do anything to jeopardize that. I remember Nelson saying that in response to some sort of restraint on Supervisor’s pensions Moorlach said the he didn’t think the Moorlach family could take that hit.

          But Moorlach was not personally into the government services-largesse-greed-gravy boat that the others definitely are. Of course he never did a damn thing to fix the culture of lobbyist/out-sourcing/patronage, either. And he could have. But he never did. And that’s an F- to those of us who naively believed in the dude back in 2006.

  • Steve W.

    Berardino not sanctimonious? The same Berardino who ranted and raved that a few EAs getting (or going back to) jobs in county agencies was unfair to rank-and-file OCEA members, and then recruits a reporter who has never been either a union member or a county employee and jumps her ahead of all other OCEA staff and members to be the next general manager?

    • David Zenger

      “Berardino not sanctimonious?”

      Abrasive? Loud? Pugnacious? Single-minded? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

      Sanctimonious? No.

      I assume that his successor is chosen by the union’s board of directors, so you could take that up with them. I’m not qualified to judge that.

      • Steve W.

        Maybe “hypocritical” is a better word. And the OCEA board would ratify anyone Berardino picked. They’re his poodles. He poured out member dues money like water on losing political campaigns, gave them the reverse pick-up that eats up their pay-checks, but the Board kept him on and raised his pay. He makes more money than anyone in county government except the CEO.

        Hey, this ain’t to knock his savvy. He’s consistently savvier than the Supervisors and instinctively zeroes in on their egos and ambitions. But It’s nauseating to see him lionized like this.

        • David Zenger

          I agree completely that Nick wasted a lot of dough on that Leos character.

          • Steve W.

            Not to mention hundreds of thousands of members’ dollars vainly trying to take out the Costa Mesa Council majority. The list of burned dollars goes on and on. But it isn’t Berardino’s money! And OCEA members don’t have a clue.

        • octaxpayer

          Have to agree on the “gave them the reverse pick-up that eats up their pay-checks”. As this kills the staff.

          I started with a OK take home salary. It paid the bill’s anyway. One of the reason I left as a manager at the County was the County started taking so much out now that I could not pay my bills any longer. The other reason is I could not stand to constantly be told to be keep quiet and watch the miss-management , wasted tax $$$ or corruption continue any longer. Now that I’m back in the real world working out of government I’m appreciated, work less, no stress, get raises, bonuses and better benefits. I wish I could share all that I know, but it would get all turned around and I would end up the bad person. I always thought working in government was a good thing. Wow, was I wrong. One day I may write a book.

          • OCservant_Leader

            I had the exact same experience. In the end – I brought home less than 8 years before and couldn’t afford to stay.

            The frustration of working around the appointees made it impossible to make any progress. One EA would replace 2-3 OCEA workers in my budget. Then I had to convince the OCEA workers to do more work for same pay to make up for lost FTEs.

            Every now and then an EA will pluck a secretary and take them with them as they get promoted. That secretary will become their spokesperson at the trainings to try and keep morale up. They say “you too can be like me – just work hard….keep your mouth shut and one day you get chosen to become a Manager”. Most realize an encounter with a space alien is more likely.

            The last office I worked in had about 10 OCEA & a couple Extra help temps support staff and as a result of 5 years of reorgs to accommodate 7 appointees – there was no rhyme or reason to who was IPT – all the way to staff specialist. They were just fall-out – casualties of the EA wars.

          • octaxpayer

            My area didn’t have any EA’s -lol- . I held a fairly high mid-level position who was involved in about everything.

            I keep my self as anonymous because you never know what havoc can be caused as many at the County are well connected and could affect our life even outside.

            Whistle blowers do not fair to well in the reality of life any longer. They get chewed up and spit out no matter if they are in the right.

          • David Zenger

            You can blame the people who promoted that back in 2004: Campbell, Silva, and Wilson. And of course all the old guys who suddenly got a retroactive bonanza.

  • loudchapina

    Thank you for your leadership Nick! Enjoyed all the years fighting next to you and defending the rights of the members and citizens. I will never forget your one on ones with Mainero, Mauk, Sue Paul, Moorlach, and many others. My favorite moment was you with the broken foot blocking the garage at the courthouse and the judges being so angry! Thank you for your service to our Country and for allowing us to share this crazy political ride with you!

  • Steve W.

    Nick Berardino spent his adult life figuring out how to transfer the taxpayers money into the pockets of his union members, whom he would go to bat to keep on the job no matter how incompetent or lazy they were. Why is a news site that supposedly fights against government waste and abuse celebrating the career of a guy whose mission was to keep wasteful county employees on the job?? Oh yeah: almost a million bucks of OCEA funding that makes Voice of OC possible. And smart of the Voice crew to get Berardino to have “second thoughts” about funding Voice of OC. That’s convenient, so the VOC can wave that statement around anytime their independence is questioned. Adam Elmahrek already tweeted it! “See! We really are independent!” Wasn’t it Berardino who a year or so ago yelled at the Board of Supes in a negotiating session that he was going to keeping funding the Voice and keep “shoving it up their a—s”?

    • OCservant_Leader

      You forgot to mention the worthless incompetent Board of Supes EAs (executive assistants) and inept family members placed into the bureaucracy illegally. These losers have really mucked up government.

      These pork feeders can’t keep their snouts out of the trough and are the main abusers of time sheet scams and illegal payouts all while furthering corruption as the invisible “hands of the board”.

      Sir – How many campaigns (city council, school board, water board etc) have you run and lost on County time?

      • Steve W.

        Setting aside you dubious assertion that all EAs are worthless, are you truly going to stack what is at most a couple dozen people against 18,000 OCEA members? Particularly when OCEA shop stewards are generally the worst goldbrickers around, because they think they’re untouchable.

        I haven’t lost any campaigns on county time. But Berardino has spent millions in OCEA member dues money on losing political campaigns.

        • David Zenger

          “Setting aside you dubious assertion that all EAs are worthless,”

          I worked on the 5th Floor for three long years and can validate that not all EAs are worthless.

          • OCservant_Leader

            Name One.

          • David Zenger

            Aw, c’mon. You want me to brag?

            Seriously: Ian Rudge and Kathy Moran were great. Of course Moorlach completely wasted them.

          • OCservant_Leader

            Ian was privy to secret information and had good writers on staff – what is so special about that? Big Deal. Could he hire into the system legally – nope. He couldn’t compete. He was too young and too green. Just worked on campaigns but had the right connections. If he’s not on a power trip and doesn’t abuse his OCEA workers – he gets a brownie point.

          • David Zenger

            Incorrect.

            Ian graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Claremont McKenna College and earned a Masters Degree from the University of Texas in Public Administration. Hire into the system legally? Are you joking? He WAS hired into “the system” legally by the Performance Auditor and got dragooned into working for Moorlach.

            Too young and too green? He is the smartest guy I knew at the County and so far as I know never worked on anybody’s campaign. he should be running the place. We’d all be a lot better off.

            Stop it.

          • OCservant_Leader

            There are many Managers who have similar degrees…and who have way more work experience…but what they don’t have is the secret sauce…that special connection to the Board of Supes – that’s what you aren’t revealing.

            Come on Mr Z – spill it

            What made a kid with practically no work experience start at the top of the bureaucracy after his stint with the Board?

            Is his aunt related to Danely? A neighbor of another “Brother” maybe? Is he in “recycling” business on the side? Come on I love these EA “origin” stories.

            The point is – the appointees represent their bosses- bartering information to use and manipulate the 5th Floor chess game. I’m sure he was great at it but if you are going to try and convince anyone that he is an amazing IT Project Manager as well?

            That’s BS.

          • Steve W.

            “What made a kid with practically no work experience start at the top of the bureaucracy after his stint with the Board?”

            You mean, like hiring a young reporter who has never been a county employee and never worked for a union as heir-apparent to take over the union representing county employees?

          • OCservant_Leader

            I think it’s a sign of the times. At first I was surprised they didn’t pick a union-guy/gal but in this modern day and age of media -using professional PR makes sense.

            The politicians have always used them – now Agency heads have their own PR machine.

            I think she’s a good pick because she’s tough and young and can help the union get into the social media game which will finally turn this corrupt Board of Supes’s Management of public resources on their head.

            18,000 United voices – on the Internet – telling the truth about how their hands are tied by the politicians will be an eye opener for the public.

            The cause of the waste, delays, back logs and dog bites will be revealed. You go Jennifer!

          • David Zenger

            I never met ANY manager who had anything near Ian’s academic background. If you can name one, even one, I’d appreciate it. University of Phoenix and Brandman don’t count.

            Ian was a Manager II working for Danley when Moorlach dragooned him.

            Ian is currently the admin manager for IT as I understand it – a far cry from a “project manager” although he would be a million time better at managing a project than 99% of the so-called managers working at the County.

        • OCservant_Leader

          A dozen EAs? OMG no there are literally hundreds – if you add the family members, neighbors & friends it’s over a 1K just from what I’ve seen. But they are at the top which is why their incompetence sticks out.

          Where I worked the EAs are about 5- deep in each program. What their internal caste system is – I don’t know. They fight amongst themselves for position.

          I could look out on any given cycle and point out 10- managers on my floor – working openly on campaigns.

          I worked there almost 20 years as a Manager – trust me you don’t want me to go into details – it’s not a good look for the BOS.

          • David Zenger

            Incorrect. There are about 40-45 EAs in Building 10, maybe another dozen in other elected officials offices.

            Let’s keep the discussion honest, okay?

          • OCservant_Leader

            You never made it to other side Mr Z. I started a list at my Agency – after around 20 – I got bored. That was about 8 years ago.

          • David Zenger

            Okay, so are you talking about FORMER EAs subsequently employed? If so, I misunderstood you. Your numbers may well be correct for all I know. The practice of placing EAs out in the bureaucracy with phony recruitments was and is a scandal.

            Bill “Give It Away” Campbell made an odious habit out of securing high-level gigs for his former people. The worst abuse was a woman named Anna Peters who got an Admin Manager III job in Franks’ department. She was completely clueless – deer in headlights clueless.

          • OCservant_Leader

            Yes- I am referring to the EAs dealt to the Agency. It’s not just Campbell – I’ve had one from each and every Supe. I think the worst was this Loser from Norby but then again I’d have to check my list.

            I would love to hear EA Anna Peters “origin ” story. How did she start as a band 3?

            How hard is it to run a cash register at OC “Pork” Parks and cut checks – for what 3 M for each Board of Supes? Until the VoOC posted “statue-fest” I had no idea of that pork barrel. Now that EA filled Parks makes sense.

          • David Zenger

            Norby had one fairly ineffective person named Jessica Somethingorother who went to work for a lobbyist then came back as some sort of “government affairs” zombie for Public Works. last I heard she was seen sticking paper leaves on a paper orange tree in the Osborne Building – one for each of Nacho Ochoa’s “100 hires in 100 days.”

            That was pretty embarrassing. But funny.

          • OCservant_Leader

            Not sure if you’re just being entertaining but the visual is funny nevertheless.

          • David Zenger

            “- trust me you don’t want me to go into details – it’s not a good look for the BOS.”

            Of course I want you to go into details. Please start at Waste and Recycling then move over to Community Resources.

  • octaxpayer

    To bad the managers union didn’t have the same leadership. Wow, sure didn’t like the comments from John Moorlach, like if he has every really contributed anything. Still tying to figure out how people like John Moorlach, keep moving up.

  • Madeleine Spencer

    Wow, what a wonderful and Passionate Article, Excellent story. My favorite quote:

    “I learned from that movement that we have rights, and we have the right
    to assert those rights,” he said. “Just because someone is an elected
    official, it doesn’t make them right. It doesn’t make them honest. It
    doesn’t make them the kind of people who are going to do the right
    thing. You don’t have to respect them. You have to be confrontational
    when it’s right to be confrontational. Otherwise your voice will not be
    heard.”

    I haven’t gotten to listen to the Podcasts but will when I get a Chance. History is a beautiful thing. Thank you Voice of OC for sharing it.

  • OCservant_Leader

    Thank you Nick – it was a good fight in a rigged game!

    I will miss your fire and speaking the truth.

    The OC Board of Supes are dismantling the union because they have their own greedy agenda to outsource all public services to their own firms.

    Through corruption they currently control all County contracting–but they want more. They want it all.

    The union creates and maintains a middle class. Using tax dollars to pay public servants to provide public services benefits society as a whole.

    Negligence in public service is caused by corruption- (ie Animal Care) not unions.

    The GOP model of outsourcing to make themselves a profit — only benefits a few –an elite few–them.

    The middle class disappears and the poverty class grows with only part time jobs and no benefits.

    I would be interested to hear Nick’s thoughts on the future of public service in the OC.

    • Steve W.

      “Using tax dollars to pay public servants to provide public services benefits society as a whole.”

      Weeeell, then! Howzabout we suck even more money out of taxpayers and double the pay of every county employee? Won’t that be double the benefit to society as a whole? Good Lord. If you’re an OC Servant Leader, no wonder county gov’t is going down the tubes.

      • OCservant_Leader

        Thank you for quoting me and teeing up the contrast.

        Yes – using criminals [immune EAs hands of the board ] only benefits the criminals.

        Politicians stuffing their pockets…doesn’t benefit society – that’s why there is a special law to describe it called “graft”.

        Thank you Nick B for reminding the public that politicians are not to be admired or respected just because they get elected.