A recent meeting of the Orange County Board of Supervisors. (Photo by: Violeta Vaqueiro)

Tuesday, June 7, 2010 | Orange County is not the City of Bell.

That was the theme Tuesday as county supervisors debated a controversial audit that found top executives granting themselves raises and promotions while rank-and-file workers and services were being cut.

Based on the disclosures, first published by Voice of OC last month, labor leaders asked supervisors to refer all questionable raises to an independent third party.

County supervisors resisted those calls, instead appointing an ad hoc committee to study the Human Relations Department. Supervisors Shawn Nelson and Pat Bates, CEO Tom Mauk, Performance Auditor Steve Danley and Human Resources Director Carl Crown will review the audit findings. The audit was performed by Danley’s office.

Nick Berardino, general manager for the Orange County Employees Association, told supervisors the disclosures over raises put a dark cloud over the relations between OCEA and the county.

“For the first time in our county there’s a lack of moral authority to continue to bargain with us in good faith,” an emotional Berardino told supervisors Tuesday.

Berardino said the “executive abuses” in Orange County were similar to those seen in the cities of Bell, Vernon and Laguna Hills. The county pay raises are part of a recent pattern of big salaries and perks for executives while public workers are handed criticism and layoffs, Berardino said.

Berardino called the OC raises the “most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen.”

He then disparaged supervisors for mention of the anniversary of D-Day, World War II, in the morning invocation.

“Do you think there’s one commander who would have stood and told those men I will drink before you drink, I can eat before you eat,” said Berardino, his voice cracking.

Questioning the morality of the county leadership didn’t draw a direct response, but the comparisons to Bell did.

“I react negatively to making a comparison to Bell, since what we’re trying to do is do things in the open,” said board Chairman Bill Campbell.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson concentrated on allegations made by Danley that the CEO’s office wasn’t fully open during the audit because it gave answers to the news media that didn’t match the information given to the audit team.

“Did you get full cooperation in your effort to get information? I need to know,” Nelson said, adding that he would confront any department that resisted calls for information.

“Yes and no,” Danley answered. “Mostly we got cooperation. Toward the end, there was instances of information being put out that we didn’t get in advance. In those few instances, there was a problem.”

Nelson said Danley’s answer was a “softer response than I got privately.”

While Danley emphasized in his report that unfavorable state audits of the Human Resources Department were never shown to supervisors, he didn’t seem to know the legal impact of hiding such information.

Responding to Supervisor John Moorlach questions on that point, Danley said he would get back to him.

Moorlach – who said reading the auditor’s report felt like being punched – criticized upper-level managers for having no backup documentation for many raises and promotions.

He seemed to react sympathetically to allegations made by Berardino that other departments, like the Orange County Sheriff ‘s Department, balanced their budgets without handing out raises to top managers.

Moorlach put Mauk on the hot seat, asking him to directly respond.

“Were there reclassifications and promotions going on [during layoffs]? The answer is yes,” Mauk said. “Was it just managers and executives? No.”

Mauk said it was unfair to concentrate on 75 cases of executives and managers being reclassified when more than 1,900 general employees were reclassified in recent years. Raises and promotions are important as retention and recruitment tools, he said.

He noted that the county’s director of finance had recently been instrumental in obtaining a refinance package for county bonds that netted the county significant savings.

The debate over executive raises was preceded by presentations to top managers taking part in the county’s leadership academy. The academy prides itself in referring to the “leader as servant.”

Please contact Norberto Santana, Jr. directly at nsantana@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/norbertosantana. And add your voice with a letter to the editor.

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