Since county supervisors establisihed the Office of Independent Review in 2008 to keep watch over the Orange County Sheriff’s Department after a brutal and fatal jail beating, board members have repeatedly complained that the review agency isn’t providing the results they expected.
Yet supervisors haven’t made it clear what they want the agency and its head — Stephen Connelly — to do.
At times, different supervisors have asked the agency to act as a civilian review commission. At other times, supervisors apparently wanted an ombudsman who could give them detailed information about department issues.
This week the board’s frustrations and conflicting expectations collided with the renewal of Connelly’s contract. Supervisors voted 3-2 to extend his contract for six months, and they made it clear that the agency is on a short leash.
Chairman Bill Campbell and Supervisor John Moorlach have been Connelly’s biggest supporters, but the other three supervisors are frustrated by how the agency has operated.
“I too have struggled with continuing this resource in our annual budget discussions,” Supervisor Pat Bates said after offering the motion to extend the contract. “Not only has the office not reported regularly to the public as promised, but even the reports to our board offices have been lacking.”
“It’s become very obvious to me that this individual has been a great resource to our Sheriff’s Department … almost a mentor,” Bates said. She said that Sheriff Sandra Hutchens had lobbied hard for a contract extension for Connelly.
Supervisors credit Hutchens with reforming the department with heightened accountability and transparency, but they seem to crave a more public role for Connolly.
“We need to have an independent third party review, and that is not the way this office is operating,” Bates said.
“I’m glad that [the review office] is going to have the chance to continue,” said Connolly, reacting to Tuesday’s tight vote. “I really do think it has succeeded in making the Orange County Sheriff’s Department more accountable, and I agree with the [Board of Supervisors] that sharing as much information as possible with them and the public is an important priority.”
Supervisor Janet Nguyen, a longtime critic of the lack of a public role for the agency, also said she’s “struggled in the past years” to support the expenditure.
Supervisors have mentioned repeatedly that they see the Los Angeles Office of Independent Review releasing numerous public reports on the state of that county’s law enforcement agencies, some of which have revealed alarming trends in officer behavior.
But they haven’t seen similar action in Orange County and balked at granting Connelly the three-year contract extension that had been sought.
“When I look for places there ought to be evidence of activity, I don’t find it,” said Supervisor Shawn Nelson. “Results have to be evident. I’ve asked repeatedly for specifics. I never get them”
Moorlach said there’s been real progress, but it hasn’t been presented publicly.
“When I arrived, we had more than 30 lawsuits because of the unique culture in the jails,” Moorlach said. It’s unclear how many lawsuits have been filed since.
Moorlach added: “Connelly has been embedded [in the Sheriff’s Department], but I believe he has been very independent. … Where Mr. Connelly falls short is that he hasn’t been bragging about himself.”
Campbell said also that Connelly’s reports are important, yet Connelly struggles with how to make those reports public, since many involve litigation against the county.
“I’m creating a script for people who are suing us,” Campbell said of his concerns. “How do I balance between accountability and liability.”
Yet Campbell also acknowledged this week that if county officials don’t devise a way to showcase Connelly’s work in a public manner, his presence in Orange County might be short-lived.
“John,” Campbell said, looking at Moorlach, “you and I pushed this. Somehow we have to make people aware there’s a benefit to this.”