It’s been a long held tradition at the County of Orange that taxpayers inherit political aides when county supervisors move on.
And with several county supervisors now nearing the end of their terms, there’s a wave of political aides from the fifth floor at the County Hall of Administration quietly scrambling – given that their bosses are all vocal conservatives – to jump into the county bureaucracy before their political patrons leave.
For years, political aides to supervisors have been able to transfer into highly paid jobs without undergoing public recruitments. Many jobs don’t even exist until the aides need them, records and audits show.
One former aide to Supervisor Bill Cambpell had officials at the health care agency ready to hire her by the spring of 2012, well before the job even opened later that summer, email records show.
When Huntington Beach Mayor Matt Harper had a falling out with his boss, County Supervisor Janet Nguyen, as her deputy chief of staff in 2011, county staff quickly found a place for him in a new position at the county trash department despite a countywide hiring freeze.
One email chain obtained through the state’s public records act showed that Harper had to be sought out by county HR staff to finish his job application while he was on vacation.
Harper is now running as the conservative darling of Orange County’s Republican establishment for a state assembly seat.
Yet the type of transfer used by Harper has come under increasing media and legal scrutiny in recent years – with numerous exposes and audits uncovering questionable transfers and raises by executive aides to county supervisors.
In 2013, county officials established a new policy preventing aides with no previous experience in county government from transferring into jobs without formal recruitments.
That now has prompted protests from county supervisors.
“I’m a little miffed by this theory that EAs (supervisors’ executive assistants) that work in board offices cannot go into the bureaucracy. That somehow they are tainted,” said County Supervisor Todd Spitzer during budget hearings last week.
Spitzer and Supervisor Pat Bates challenged County CEO Mike Giancola to change that.
“I would like to see how we can make some kind of seamless system, if you will, so that talent goes where talent goes and it flows like water, where there’s a need,” Spitzer added.
That drew a sharp, immediate and direct response from Giancola.
“They have to go through the county process,” Giancola said. “That’s what we’re really talking about. Some type of recruitment, sometimes as EAs, they did not go through that formal recruitment process and that’s what we’re insisting on now.”
Still, Spitzer and Bates both insisted that the county create a program that allows political aides to move back and forth between the bureaucracy and the political aisle on the fifth floor, as aides have done for years.
“I want to see more of that. I want to have that discussion,” Spitzer said.
“Will do,” said Giancola.
The exchange was recorded on video:
Spitzer’s directive is drawing a different kind of response in labor circles.
“They basically told the CEO, you got a wave of EAs coming. Find places for them,” said Nick Berardino, general manager for the Orange County Employees Association, which represents most rank and file workers.
“For our members, who are also looking to promote, we’re gong to be watching this extraordinarily closely,” Berardino said.
He said Spitzer’s speech to Giancola smacked of gaming the system.
“We already believe the selection rules have been violated,” Berardino said, adding that his union has already lodged a formal complaint with county human resources staff.
Berardino agreed with Spitzer that many political aides from the fifth floor have gone on to successful careers in the county bureaucracy.
“I’ve never discounted them for their experience on the fifth floor,” Berardino said.
But county supervisors’ often force department heads and managers to “make up jobs for many of them,” he said.
“Many of these EAs are former campaign staffers, who campaigned on the agenda for smaller government. But when it comes to getting government jobs, they’re the first in line,” Berardino said.
Bates all but warned Giancola publicly from the dais last week that a wave of political aides is getting ready to be unleashed. Bates asked about special training efforts that Giancola mentioned in his update to supervisors.
“Is that gong to happen before we have this massive turnover potentially on this board of supervisors?” Bates asked.
Giancola advised Bates that “we are working with your chiefs of staff” to present what services the county has to help out county aides seeking jobs.
Last year, OCEA pressed State Senator Lou Correa to pursue legislation that would take certain hiring out of county hands and essentially appoint state officials as a special promotions master to make sure that taxpayers have a chance to compete for the jobs they provide through their taxes.
Correa eventually allowed his bill on hiring to die and wasn’t able to convince his colleagues that the situation in Orange County was dire enough to take action.
Yet Spitzer’s demands have apparently awoken interest.
“I look forward to the story. And the debate,” Correa said. “It’s definitely an issue to look at.”