Thursday, March 3, 2010 | County officials are in the final stages of negotiating an exit for embattled Public Administrator John Williams.

“We’re still trying to work with John on how to work this out in a way that solves the problem,” said County CEO Tom Mauk, who for the first time yesterday confirimed private negotiations that have been ongoing for months. “That’s as specific as I can get. We’re still in discussions.”

Williams’ attorney, Phil Greer, declined comment.

Voice of OC first reported the private negotiations in early February after a private attorney hired to review Williams’ operations concluded he was incompetent and exposing the county to liability, according to those who have been briefed on the report, which was never put in writing.

Earlier this week, supervisors stripped Williams of his public guardian role. And earlier this month, they appointed an executive manager to take over operations for the public administrator post.

Supervisors’ Chairman Bill Campbell, other supervisors and Mauk have now all joined the public call for Williams to resign in order to avoid a complicated recall campaign.

However, supervisors and others have said they would support a campaign to strip Williams of his office should negotiations on his voluntary resignation fail. Meanwhile, Williams continues to get his full paycheck even though watchdogs argue that it’s illegal and constitutes a gift of public funds.

Williams has been ensnared in controversy ever since 2009 when two scathing grand jury reports criticized his management of the county agency, which oversees both complex estates of those without heirs and the indigent.

Last year, his office was catapulted into the news after a high-ranking assistant district attorney, Todd Spitzer, was fired by DA Tony Rackauckas after looking into allegations that Williams was mishandling a case involving a domestic violence victim.

The firing also highlighted the role of Rackauckas’ fiancé Peggi Buff, who was a political appointee serving as Williams’ second-in-command.

Williams lobbied in 2007 to have the elected office of public administrator and the appointed office of public guardian combined, which netted him an annual salary in excess of $150,000.

He gained an influential supporter when Supervisor John Moorlach endorsed his bid to combine the offices. Later, Campbell also backed Williams. Both now regret putting Williams — who was an influential GOP insider and elected board member to the South Coast Community College District — in the position.

Supervisors stuck by Williams last year just before his re-election to office, which is why county attorneys say his salary now cannot be changed.

In retrospect, Campbell said supervisors moved too quickly to combine the offices in 2007 and didn’t fully understand the requirements of the Public Administrator and Public Guardian jobs. Now, Campbell said, both positions require very specific legal and financial education and experience.

Even if Williams resigns, county officials said, they would support efforts to put together a ballot initiative that moves the Public Administrator post to an appointed position.

Spitzer issued a statement after the events of the last week saying the supervisors’ action backed up his own initial concerns.

“It took real courage for the Supervisors to unanimously put aside politics to expose the corruption at the management level of the Public Guardian’s Office,” Spitzer said. “We are all shocked at the political interests who have a stake in the operations of that department.”

Spitzer also criticized the position of county attorneys who argue that Williams must continue to be paid even though his job duties have been eliminated. He points to a recent Supreme Court decision where the justices say pay can be trimmed for offices joined by ordinance (as in Williams’ case).

According to sources close to the negotiations, it seems that Williams will probably receive some sort of severance payment aimed at encouraging him to step down.

That type of approach is already drawing some fire.

“Where else, but in government, can you be deemed incompetent and still get your full salary?” said Spitzer.

Taxpayers also will likely foot the bill to move Williams’ top staffers such as Buff, despite a “hard” hiring freeze instituted last year because of the county’s budget woes.

“We’ll treat her like everybody else,” Mauk said of Buff. “We’ll consider her for other positions in the county based on her talent and ability and place her appropriately.”

That kind of treatment drew a wry reply from Nick Berardino, general manager for the Orange County Employees Association, who was one of the first officials to call for Williams’ ouster in 2009 after the grand jury reports.

“Finding places for everyone is an appropriate thing to do,” Berardino said. “We hope they will do that for our members — the working stiffs — in the future.”

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