Sparks Fly as Supervisors Debate Adding Political Aides

County of Orange

Supervisor Andrew Do at a 2015 county Board of Supervisors meeting.

Following an intense discussion Tuesday about political aides in which one Orange County supervisor directly confronted the county’s human resources director, county supervisors postponed a proposed expansion of the aides’ ranks.

In a split vote earlier this month, supervisors signaled plans to create four new political aide positions among the county’s auditor-controller and assessor.

On Tuesday, they were slated to formally approve the job additions, which human resources staff estimated would cost up to $365,000 more per year.

Supervisors were also scheduled to eliminate the requirement that the upper salary range for political aides be reserved for employees with “outstanding performance.”

But supervisors ended up holding off, given opposition from the swing vote, supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer, who said he changed his mind after learning it would bring an added cost to the public.

Spitzer said that when he supported it initially, he had mistakenly believed “that this would be revenue-neutral.”

The item does appear slated to return for approval, with Supervisor Shawn Nelson signaling that it would pass if the department heads provide the specific amount they’d be paying the proposed aides.

The cost estimate for the proposed expansion was a major point of contention Tuesday, with Auditor-Controller Eric Woolery and Supervisor Andrew Do disputing estimates from the county’s human resources and finance staff.

Both described those estimates as “misleading.”

“Since the vacant positions are already budgeted, and the salaries of the EAs were anticipated in the current and [fiscal year] 2015-16 budget, there is no cost increase,” Woolery wrote in a statement provided to Voice of OC, adding that the aides would serve as liaisons to supervisors, other county departments and outside agencies.

“There is a net zero financial impact.  The staff report was somewhat misleading.”

In response to questioning by Do along the same lines, the county’s chief financial officer said that while the costs would indeed be absorbed into existing budgets, the positions did cost more money that the vacant positions they’re replacing.

“The positions themselves, like all positions in the county, have a certain…dollar amount associated with them,” said Frank Kim, the chief financial officer.

Kim did concede that the estimates were based on the maximum salary that the departments said they’d pay the aides – about $54 per hour – and the costs could end up being less than indicated in his report.

Spitzer largely defended Kim’s approach, thanking him for disclosing what the financial impact could be for the county.

Meanwhile, the largest county employees’ union blasted the whole proposal, saying it’s ridiculous to spend money on political aides in an environment where supervisors claim there’s no money in the budget for other priorities.

“Since 2008, we’ve been hearing that the county has some really serious budget constraints, that we all need to do more with less, that we all need to make sacrifices…and we’ve really partnered with the county to figure out how we can do more with less,” said Jennifer Muir, assistant general manage of the Orange County Employees Association.

She said a backlog in processing evidence kits for rape cases, which typically take a week to process, are now taking a month or more to analyze.  That workload is expected to soon triple, Muir added, as city police departments’ kits are sent to the county under a new state law.

The idea of diverting county funds to political appointees for elected officials is “seriously concerning,” Muir said.

That brought a backlash from Do.

“I think that’s the kind of sensationalism that’s unwarranted.  Why don’t we keep the discussion to what it’s about?  As a former [deputy district attorney], I don’t think that…is a fair thing to do to this board.”

The union’s top executive later joined the meeting to defend Muir’s reference to rape kits taking longer to process..

“That was a fair comparison, Mr. Chairman. That’s exactly what you do. That’s your job, is to make those choices,” said Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.

“The fact that anyone wants to make choices to enhance their political body – That’s a choice they make, but there’s a cost to it.”

The cost and role of political aides has been a longstanding debate at the county, given numerous cases of supervisors placing their aides into county bureaucratic jobs, often without formal recruitments.

In addition, there has been much concern expressed about county managers being unable to supervise political workers inside departments.

The tension over the aides was evidenced Tuesday by Do and the county’s human resources director, Steve Danley.

Do – who hired a political aide once sanctioned by Danley for making political threats – spent several minutes interrogating Danley, questioning – among other things – why elected department heads need to come to supervisors for approval before re-classifying positions as political aides.

Pointing to two non-aide positions in the sheriff and auditor-controller’s offices that were reclassified as political aides in 2011 without supervisors’ approval, Do asked: “What’s different between those situations and what we’re talking about here?”

Danley said county policy requires supervisors to approve of such changes, and that he wasn’t HR director when the previous re-classifications were done in 2011.

Do shot back, asking if Danley thinks policy interpretations should change based on who is HR director.

“So therefore your answer is non-responsive,” Do said.

Nelson, meanwhile, backed up Danley – suggesting that the previous HR director might have violated policy when the changes were made in 2011.

“You’re excluding the fact that the prior guy may have broken the rules,” Nelson said.

Do also took issue with Danley’s January rejection of his request for top pay for his new chief of staff, Brian Probolsky, in a salary range reserved for employees with “outstanding performance.”

Probolsky was recently sanctioned by the human resources department under Danley for improperly documenting time off for his elected duties as a water district board member and for making political threats of retribution.

“When I first took office and I put in the salary request for my staff, do you remember that you denied – rejected – my request?” Do asked on Tuesday.

Danley responded that the request was for “a salary rate that was above what the [personnel and salary resolution] allowed.”

Do probed further, telling Danley to point to the specific language in the resolution that requires supervisors to adhere to its salary rules.

To “refresh” Danley’s memory, Do pointed to a section that say supervisors can pay political aides up to the “maximum rate of the applicable range.”

Danley, meanwhile, responded that the county’s practice is to set that top level as the “maximum advertised rate,” which in the case of political aides is about $54 per hour, less than the $60 an hour Do was seeking.

In order to achieve what Do wanted, Danley added, staff brought forward Tuesday’s proposal to eliminate the “outstanding performance” requirement.

The intensity of the exchange was apparent to Supervisor Michelle Steel.

“It’s like court” sitting here, Steel remarked.

The silence of the county’s CEO, Mike Giancola, during Do’s grilling brought criticism from the union chief.

“I saw Mr. Giancola sit here…he watched his staff get laid out here. Didn’t do anything. Just sat there.  And that’s why he does not have the confidence of the employees,” Berardino said.  Giancola didn’t respond to the critique.

Nelson, meanwhile, said the proposal needs more protection regarding expanding the salary range.

“It creates a lot of problems, frankly, morale-wise…anyone on our staff would be deflated” if a supervisor were to offer someone off the street a $60 per hour job, Nelson said.

Do defended his decision to pay two of his staffers at that top rate, saying one of them – his deputy chief, Nick Lecong – is working just part-time at 25 hours per week and getting no pension benefits.

“He works at all hours, just like as if he’s working full-time,” Do said.

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, meanwhile, said she’s not comfortable with Tuesday’s proposals.

“I think it’s imperative for the elected department heads to have some formal hiring guidelines,” Bartlett said.

The next county supervisors meeting is scheduled for April 14.