Hiring of Political Aides Under Scrutiny at County

Norberto Santana Jr./Voice of OC

Denis Bilodeau (front) and Paul Walters, political aides to supervisors Shawn Nelson and Lisa Bartlett, respectively during a 2015 Board of Supervisors meeting.

How many political aides does it really take to run a county government?

That’s a question county supervisors will try to answer next month after circulating a private survey among elected leaders in county government that asked questions including: How many political aides are needed? What do they produce? And how do they impact the county budget?

While supervisors have historically utilized political aides on their staffs, there’s been less use in departments headed by elected technocrats, such as: Auditor Controller; Clerk Recorder; Assessor; Sheriff; and District Attorney.

Now some of these officials are saying they want their share of political aides. Auditor Controller Eric Woolery, for example, said he is seeking at least one.

“I’m interested in just one EA,” Woolery said, referring to an Executive Assistant — the traditional reference by county ordinance to a political aide. “But down the road maybe needing two. Trying to be everywhere and make the liaisons I need is tough on my own.”

Woolery said he has the same right as county supervisors to have political aides.

“I’m elected so I am political,” Woolery said. “I do have a duty to outreach to taxpayers. One of the main tents of my campaign was transparency and outreach. And having a few aides, confidantes, to help with that is totally legitimate.”

Treasurer Tax Collector Shari Freidenrich earlier this month publicly told supervisors she had employed as much as two political aides, yet it’s unclear why a tax collector needs a political aide.

County supervisors themselves don’t face any limits in hiring political aides.

In fact, it’s only in recent times, under former County Supervisors’ Chairman Shawn Nelson, that supervisors’ office budgets were even capped.

It’s even less clear how political aides are used across other countywide elected officials.

“This issue needs some love, care and attention,” Nelson said earlier this month in his last meeting as chairman where he suggested a review.

Based on Nelson’s open questions, County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett motioned to have county staff research the issue and come back to supervisors with options on Feb. 3.

“The question becomes do we even need them?” Nelson said.

Nick Berardino, general manager for the Orange County Employees Association, supports the move by supervisors, telling them publicly earlier this month, “We have to begin to limit the politicization of the county. It’s gotten us in so much trouble.”

Political aides to county supervisors as well as politically connected agency executives have indeed been at the center of numerous scandals inside the county government in recent years.

“I can think of some specific examples that I will throw into the abuse category,” Nelson said earlier this month, adding “I wont’ bring them up now.”

Former OC Public Works executive Carlos Bustamante, also a former Santa Ana city councilman, is currently being prosecuted by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas for a series of felony sex crimes after supervisors allowed Bustamante to quietly resign with a severance package in 2011.

Former County Supervisor John Moorlach faced political blowback after he fast-tracked political friends into technocratic positions, like Assistant Treasurer Chriss Street and Public Administrator John Williams.

Both Street and Williams had their positions downsized by county supervisors in the wake of scandals.

Former Assessor Webster Guillory is also facing prosecution over his alleged use last year of aides to circulate his nomination petitions inside the office.

County Chief Operating Officer Mark Denny – a former chief of staff to Supervisors’ Chairman Bill Campbell – is himself now under legal review for his actions while heading up the county parks department.

Moulton Niguel Water District Board Member Brian Probolsky, who moved from former Supervisor Pat Bates to a top job at OC Community Resources in 2011, is still apparently under investigation by human resources officials for failing to document time off on his county time sheet while attending water district functions.

Probolsky was hired back to Bates staff in the midst of the human resources investigation and granted a raise above what is authorized by county ordinance. He headed up Bates’ office while she ran for state senate and acted as an interim chief of staff for Bartlett.

Probolsky’s status is unclear especially since Bartlett brought in former Santa Ana City Manager Paul Walters as chief of staff after city officials fired Walters as their city manager.

For years, executive aides to supervisors have been virtually guaranteed jobs inside county government agencies when their bosses left office, with aides often skipping official recruitments altogether.

Berardino said he doesn’t buy the argument that elected officials need any kind of political employees.

“There’s no money to hire employees to provide services to the public,” said Berardino. “But they find money to hire political aides for taxpayer-funded electioneering.”

“We need to limit this,” Berardino said. “These are operating departments…the last thing we need in operational departments is to have political people there.”

Nelson agrees with Berardino on the lack of need for political aides in technocratic elected offices. “Operational departments shouldn’t have political aides,” Nelson said. “There’s no reason for it.”

Nelson doesn’t see politicking as part of the job for these officials.

“I don’t believe that the auditor controller has any reason to do any PR (public relations) work,” Nelson said. “His customer is the county. It’s all internal processing.”

Woolery bristles at Nelson’s contention immediately responding, “we are elected the same as they are. They should have trust in us to manage our affairs and budgets.”

“To say you can’t have a class of employee is a little harsh to us, especially since we are political electeds just like they are,” Woolery said.

Indeed, County Supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer is questioning whether supervisors have any power to alter another independently elected official’s office organization.

Spitzer said he doesn’t want supervisors to be seen as “micromanaging” other elected officials’ approach to office.

Yet, based on Bartlett’s motion and Nelson’s direction, Spitzer warned other elected officials who don’t want to explain how they use political aides to not come around him during budget time.

“Anybody who uses these appointments must respond,” Spitzer said.

“If a department head uses an EA (Executive Aide) and can’t explain how they use that aide…that’s the first department that I will vote to cut,” Spitzer warned.