Arguing that he is an independently elected official, Orange County Public Administrator John Williams threatened a court battle this week unless county supervisors relent and allow him back into his office.
County supervisors have locked Williams out, arguing he effectively resigned last March when he offered to retire in exchange for an end of recall efforts over alleged mismanagement of the office.
Earlier this week, Willliams’ attorney advised county CEO Tom Mauk that Williams had simply changed his mind and no longer intended to retire. Supervisors, through the county counsel, have insisted that Williams’ resignation is final and there’s no turning back.
While Williams’ biography is still prominently displayed on the public administrator’s website, he’s been locked out of his office. The county is mailing him what officials insist is his final paycheck.
Until last year, Williams held the posts of both public guardian and public administrator, which oversee the complex estates of deceased people without heirs and those of indigent people. He has been a lightning rod in county government since 2009, when two scathing grand jury reports criticized his management of both offices.
The spotlight on Williams intensified in late 2010 when a high-ranking assistant district attorney, Todd Spitzer, was fired by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas after Spitzer investigated allegations that Williams was mishandling a case involving a domestic-violence victim.
By early 2011, supervisors had stripped Williams of his public guardian role and appointed an executive manager to assume Williams’ management of the public administrator’s office. Eventually, Williams agreed to a deal whereby he would be would retire on Jan. 23 this year.
Now Williams’ lawyer, Phil Greer, is threatening to go to court by Friday if supervisors don’t witdraw their demands that Williams leave his job.
“It’s improper and possibly illegal,” said Greer, who has represented several supervisors in recent years. “The board doesn’t have the ability under the law, the California Constitution or the county charter to do what they’ve attempted to do. There was no retirement or resignation on the part of the Mr. Williams.”
Greer criticized “the clandestine and arrogant manner that county supervisors have acted, which is serving to disenfranchise the more than 200,000 people that voted for Mr. Williams.”
It’s the third time in recent years that county supervisors are dealing with the unseating of an elected county official, having witnessed the removal of Sheriff Mike Carona after a federal indictment and the stripping of investment powers from Treasurer-Tax Collector Chriss Street.
Street and Williams both were Republican insiders who got their elected positions by aligning themselves with Supervisor John Moorlach. In both cases, Moorlach turned on them once mismanagement allegations surfaced.
Supervisor Bill Campbell, who was board chairman and a central figure in negotiating the deal with Williams, said he didn’t think Greer really spoke for Williams. There had been times during negotiations last year when Williams distanced himself from Greer because of his “flamboyant statements that were off the wall,” Campbell said.
Campbell repeated several times during an interview that “John Williams is an honorable man. He put it in writing to me that he intended to resign,” Campbell said. “Why wouldn’t we take him at his word?”
Campbell added that Williams should have put his desire to rescind his resignation in writing. He said he doesn’t think Greer is standing on solid ground. “I’d be shocked if they were going into court.”
The county’s latest dust up with Williams also drew a strong comment from Spitzer, now a candidate for county supervisor, whose initial focus on Williams’ handling of probate cases was the impetus for last year’s drama.
After Williams complained about Spitzer’s inquiry to District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, whose then-fiancee worked as Williams’ second-in-command, Spitzer was abruptly fired.
“Yes, I lost my job as an Assistant DA because I unknowingly called the Public Guardian on behalf of a crime victim to inquire whether the PG (Public Guardian) had an on-going investigation. I had no idea that the DA’s fiance, Peggy Buff, was the Assistant Public Guardian,” Spitzer wrote yesterday on the Voice of OC Facebook page.
Susan Kang Schroeder, spokeswoman for Rackauckas, disputed Spitzer’s allegations, saying he was fired for many reasons. She also released a recent letter sent to Spitzer saying he had attempted to get his job back after his firing, a contention Spitzer later dismissed as false.
“I was let go because I uncovered a needle in a haystack which led to another OC scandal involving a lot of high powered political figures,” Spitzer wrote earlier.
Meanwhile, county supervisors are turning their attention to the ballot initiative they have sponsored on the June 2012 ballot that would turn the public administrator back into an appointed position.
Both Campbell and Moorlach — Republicans who were early supporters of Williams — now say they made a mistake because the position is a dangerous combination of a part-time job that is too technical to leave in the hands of someone inexperienced in probate issues.
“There has to be knowledge and experience acting as a fiduciary when you’re trying to protect somebody’s assets,” Campbell said. “He didn’t, and the county could have paid the consequences of that,” Campbell said.
Campbell was referring an independent investigation of Williams. As part of a secret deal negotiated with Williams to prod him into retirement, the results of that investigation have not been released publicly.
Greer said many of the issues raised in the report have since been resolved without litigation against the county.
“So what,” Campbell countered. “The next time they could.”