Friday, March 4, 2010 | With word coming out that embattled Public Administrator John Williams is willing to heed supervisors call for his resignation, the question now becomes: how much will it cost?
According to sources close to the talks, the big question facing supervisors is whether to agree to hand Williams the payoff he seeks in exchange for resigning — estimated at a year or more of salary — which he argues he secured when voters re-elected him to office in 2010.
Yet voices are rising against offering Williams any kind of payoff, complicating the negotiations.
Supervisors apparently weren’t able to reach a consensus during a last-minute closed session meeting Friday morning to discuss the Williams issue.
“Progress was made,” said lead negotiator and Supervisors Chairman Bill Campbell. “But there is not a final resolution. I’m hopeful something will be resolved early next week.”
Supervisor Shawn Nelson disclosed that Williams delivered some “surprise information” on Friday’s closed session that could likely lead to a conclusion of the crisis in a manner of days.
Other than that, supervisors aren’t talking about the negotiations.
There is some talk about the possibility that if negotiations break down, the supervisors would have the option of calling for grand jury probe. That panel has the power, in rare circumstances, to remove an elected official like Williams from office.
The one wrinkle in that option is that Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas would not likely be able to empanel a grand jury because of a conflict of interest: His fiancé, Peggi Buff, is the second-in-command at Williams’ shop. That would bring the issue to the state Attorney General’s doorstep.
Regardless, the pressure is certainly on the supervisors to take a hard stance with Williams.
Former assistant DA Todd Spitzer, campaign finance watchdog Shirley Grindle and Flash Report Publisher Jon Fleischman – have all called on supervisors to not pay Williams a dime of taxpayer funds to leave office.
It’s the final stages of a month-long negotiation to move Williams out of office, just as lawsuits are gearing up against the county over Williams’ handling of a high-profile probate case.
Earlier this week, supervisors voted to reverse their decision from 2007 that combined the appointed position of Public Guardian and the elected office of Public Administrator.
That 2007 move ensured that Williams — a well-connected conservative GOP central committee member and trustee of the South Orange County Community College District — got an annual salary in excess of $150,000 by combining the two offices.
Williams assent was a byproduct of his local GOP connections, cruising into office with solid endorsements from GOP heavyweights such as County Supervisor John Moorlach.
Yet by 2009, he was under fire from the county’s grand jury, which issued two scathing reports that criticized Williams’ growing bureaucracy and management staff. Williams and his attorney, Phil Greer, mounted a campaign against the grand jury but it never gathered traction.
He also was the focus of a county audit that looked at his extensive travel, questioning whether he could legitimately charge taxpayers for work when he was off on educational conferences connected to his work as a school district trustee.
Moorlach turned against Williams hard, especially after the grand jury reports, removing his endorsement before the 2010 election and becoming a vocal opponent.
The record isn’t so clear for other supervisors – like Campbell and Janet Nguyen – who both say they can’t remember whether they endorsed Williams or not during his last campaign because the office was so off-radar for them at the time.
Indeed, Williams ballot statement from June 2010 said he’s endorsed by “members of the board of supervisors.”
Both Campbell and Nguyen have now called for Williams’ resignation.
And while Williams won re-election to countywide office last June, in what could have been seen as a harbinger of Williams’ collapsing support base, he lost re-election to the OC Republican Central Committee that same month.
Those kinds of political insiders, so key to Williams’ quiet rise, are now the very ones telling supervisors to play hardball as Williams tries to negotiate his way out.