Facing a host of vacancies for countywide elected offices, some of Orange County government’s top players have found themselves in a high-stakes game of political musical chairs.
Beyond finding a new county CEO, supervisors must fill vacant positions for the public administrator, clerk-recorder and the auditor-controller.
In addition, the race to fill the seat of Board of Supervisors Chairman John Moorlach, who is termed out in 2014, is already heating up.
On Tuesday during their weekly public meeting, supervisors are expected to discuss establishing procedures for filling the vacant countywide elected slots.
Moorlach said he is most focused on the 20 candidates being reviewed for CEO, given the pressing nature of filling that slot.
“It’s a lot going on,” said Moorlach, who is himself already jockeying to have Costa Mesa City Councilman Jim Righeimer replace him as county supervisor rather than Board of Equalization Vice Chair Michelle Steele, who recently moved to Surfside to run for Moorlach’s seat and is seen as a front-runner.
One of the most confusing situations facing supervisors involves the fate of the county’s public administrator slot.
“We asked the voters [during the June primary election] to allow us to get rid of that as an elected office, and they turned us down,” said outgoing Supervisor Bill Campbell, who will be replaced by former Assemblyman and Assistant District Attorney Todd Spitzer.
Yet the person elected to that office, John Williams, resigned following pressure from county supervisors.
In the interim, supervisors appointed a public guardian, Lucille Lyons, whose job previously was merged with the elected position of public administrator. She has been acting as public administrator, although it’s not clear how a permanent replacement will be handled.
While supervisors are happy with the work of Lyons, she is a Los Angeles resident and doesn’t want to run for office.
While there is talk of blending the office into the role of another countywide elected official, supervisors don’t seem to have determined their options.
“I’m struggling with the concept of blending it in with an another elective office,” Campbell said. “It would look like we’re poking voters in the eye.”
The clerk-recorder job is also attracting a lot of action.
Last week when it became clear to Republican Assemblyman Chris Norby, a former county supervisor, that he would be upset by Democrat Sharon-Quirk Silva in the 65th Assembly District race, Norby apparently began quietly seeking support to take over the job of clerk-recorder.
The current clerk-recorder is Tom Daly, who just won election to represent the 69th Assembly District.
“There’s names all over the place,” said Supervisor Janet Nguyen, confirming that Norby had called her last week to seek her support for the clerk-recorder job.
Norby did not return a call seeking comment.
There has also been talk of appointing former state Sen. Dick Ackerman or Laura Cunningham, chief of staff for Campbell. Also apparently in the running are former Norby aide Denis Bilodeau — now chief of staff to Supervisor Shawn Nelson — and even Phil Tsunuda, an Aliso Viejo city councilman now working government relations at CalOptima after a stint in county Public Works and the clerk-recorder’s office.
“I don’t think we should rush it,” Nguyen said. “The process needs to be right and shouldn’t be political.”
Yet it may be tough to take politics out of filling elected positions.
While Moorlach and Nelson also agree they want a professional manager in the clerk-recorder’s office, Nelson admits there’s a political lens over the whole process.
Nelson confirmed he has been helpful to Norby, advising him to lobby for the post. “He would do a decent job if we decide to go with a political angle,” Nelson said.
The challenge on these countywide posts, all supervisors agree, is that they are more tailored to a professional manager than a politician.
But voters have consistently supported keeping these jobs as elected posts. For example, Nelson points to last June’s election that confirmed voters weren’t interested in changing the public administrator from an elected slot despite the highly publicized problems that faced that office.
“Yeah, I have a preference,” Nelson said. “The problem is the manager has to run for office. Personally, I think these nuts-and-bolts positions ought to be run by people who are properly suited to operate those nuts and bolts.”
“I don’t know if I see Chris as a manager,” Moorlach said. “I see him more as a policy guy, a communicator.”
Moorlach called Norby a “unique personality.”
Yet the people who are qualified for technical jobs such as a treasurer, auditor or public administrator don’t necessarily want to run for elective office.
“It’s a game-changer,” Nelson argued, “because a lot of the professional manager types don’t want to be an elected official.”
That’s the situation facing interim auditor Jan Grimes, who has been at the agency for three decades and is, by most accounts, a competent replacement for former Auditor-Controller David Sundstrom.
Sundstrom left the agency earlier this year to take over as the combined auditor, controller, treasurer and tax collector for Sonoma County.
That was just before Sundstrom made a critical call on property tax allocations that resulted in giving Orange County $73 million originally intended for schools. State officials have since sued in court to reverse the allocation.
Supervisors were poised to replace Sundstrom with his second in command, Shaun Skelly. That appointment was complicated, however, when supervisors had questions, and Skelly decided to retire.
Since then, Jan Grimes has taken over the agency. While supervisors have given Grimes good reviews, she has informed them she is not interested in staying in the job.
Ironically, many people are pointing toward a quiet campaign to have Moorlach take over in 2014 when his current term as supervisor runs out. In 2006, Moorlach moved from being county treasurer-tax collector to run for county supervisor.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he did,” said Campbell. Moorlach would be a good fit, given his financial background and knowledge of the county, Campbell said.
Nelson agreed. “If John wanted to run for it, I’d encourage him to do it, and I’d support him,” Nelson said.
Although Moorlach has talked about going back to the private sector, arguing he can earn a better living as a private accountant, he has also sought to stay in public office.
Earlier this year, Moorlach unsuccessfully attempted to have supervisors support a local ballot initiative that would have extended the current term limits on county supervisors to three terms.
Moorlach hasn’t commented on his future plans, saying “I don’t know what I’m doing after this.” But recently supervisors halted recruitment for an auditor-controller, and Grimes took the title of chief deputy instead of interim auditor.
That has Nguyen concerned.
“We had a process with the auditor-controller [recruitment], and for whatever reason it was stopped. We need to get back to have a process,” she said.
Please contact Norberto Santana Jr. directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/norbertosantana.
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