Orange County supervisors tentatively decided Tuesday to eliminate a small office charged with monitoring use-of-force investigations and complaints at the county sheriff’s department.
During an all-day budget hearing, the county’s top elected officials took a unanimous “straw vote” to completely de-fund the Office of Independent Review. That includes its director, Steve Connolly, a part-time outside investigator and an executive secretary, who would be placed in another county position.
The department would be defunded starting June 30, while Connolly’s work would end July 23 if supervisors move forward with terminating his contract when the final budget is approved on June 23.
“Right now as I sit here as a member of the Board of Supervisors, I feel I’m so far in the dark about law enforcement in this county,” said supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer.
Alleged perjury by a sheriff’s deputy in the Seal Beach Scott Evans Dekraai mass shooting case has been covered extensively in the media for months, he added, but supervisors didn’t receive any insight from Connolly about it until Friday.
“I do not any longer think [the office] is useful or working properly,” Spitzer said.
The de-funding is slated to be officially approved when the final budget comes back for adoption June 23.
It’s unclear how, if at all, the supervisors plan to replace the office or find another way to review county law enforcement agencies for serious problems like the “misconduct” in use of secret jailhouse informants by the Sheriff’s and District Attorney’s offices that led to three major convictions being overturned.
Connolly, who has headed the Office of Independent Review since its formation in 2008, said he was disappointed by the move.
“I was disappointed by the vote today, but it's obviously the board's prerogative to take a different approach,” he told Voice of OC.
“There are strengths and limitations in any model of oversight; I'm proud of what the OIR model accomplished in Orange County.”
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the deputy sheriffs' union said they aren't disappointed to see the OIR office go, citing what they said were multiple levels of existing oversight, including the District Attorney's office, the state Attorney General, the U.S. Department of Justice, attorneys for plaintiffs in cases and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens.
"She's the sheriff, and I think the action they (supervisors) took transfers the responsibility for how the department operates in that area strongly to her shoulders" where it belongs, said Tom Dominguez, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs.
"I don't see the amount of money that they spend on an OIR and a replacement program really making an impact on how the law enforcement services are delivered to the taxpayers."
The OIR office was set up by county supervisors in 2008, following the brutal jail beating death of John Chamberlain, and was tasked with providing an independent set of eyes for internal investigations, with its findings kept confidential.
Its duties include reviewing the Sheriffs Department’s internal investigations of in-custody deaths, as well as its handling of internal and citizen complaints against deputies and other department employees.
With a budget of about $440,000 this year, the office is one of the county’s smallest agencies, if not the smallest. The only county employee in the department is Connolly’s executive secretary, while Connolly and a part-time investigations analyst work as independent contractors.
But over the years, the office struggled at times to meet the expectations of supervisors. It's role has been confused with a civilian review commission for the Sheriff’s Department, with supervisors often wanting Connelly to have a more public presence. They’ve also often commented that Connelly should issue more reports like his counterpart in Los Angeles County.
The result has been confusion over what Connelly should be doing and threats from supervisors that they would defund his office.
In past years, the office received public support from Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, who said it’s worth the cost because it makes her department more transparent and fosters trust with the community that internal investigations are being reviewed.
When his funding was threatened in past years, including by Supervisor Shawn Nelson, Connolly’s biggest supporters were Supervisors Bill Campbell and John Moorlach, both of whom have since left the board.
On Tuesday, Spitzer tried to leave an opening for Connolly to stay with the county, suggesting that he write a “white paper” that outlines how his work should change and “go out and do the work that this board wants to see.”
But Nelson shot down the idea.
“My message is: you should be looking for a job, because this place isn’t for you,” Nelson said of Connolly.
Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, meanwhile, said if any new review office is created, it should look at all aspects of county law enforcement, such as the Sheriff, District Attorney, probation office and Public Defender.
Bartlett has joined Spitzer in recent months in challenging District Attorney Tony Rackauckas on certain issues, such as his local program for collecting DNA evidence from people charged with misdemeanors.
Tuesday’s discussion came amid a marathon hearing in which supervisors settled on changes to the county’s proposed $5.8 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
In a series of straw votes, supervisors largely adopted staff’s recommendations for the budget.
But some of the decisions didn’t go down without a fight.
Among the highlights, Nelson and Spitzer clashed over funding for a new policy for board members who want to participate in or sponsor special events.
A proposed $200,000 annually for each board office for events, as well as the hiring of a full-time events coordinator at up to $221,000 per year, irked Nelson and Supervisor Michelle Steel, who voted against it in a straw vote.
Nelson was particularly irritated when Spitzer suggested the $200,000 event funding only go to the three supervisors who support it.
“If you want to individualize this and make this a slush fund issue, by all means do so,” Nelson said, calling the attempt “shameful.”
“Why would I approve $1 million for districts that don’t want it?” Spitzer asked, before backing down after Nelson argued it would be unfair.
Supervisors also weren’t pleased when a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union asked them to devote more funding to building permanent housing for homeless people with support services.
ACLU policy analyst Eve Garrow said plans for a year-round shelter and service center are an important step in addressing homelessness, but there’s a significant shortage of supportive housing for people to go to next.
“Unfortunately the model won’t work as planned in Orange County because sufficient affordable housing does not exist” to refer people to, Garrow told supervisors.
Spitzer shot back that the county is about to pay the ACLU $4 million in court-ordered legal fees after losing a gang injunction lawsuit, and asked Garrow to tell her counterparts they can send half of it back to the county to fund permanent housing.
“Anyone with an extra hundred million bucks sittin’ around” can solve the homeless housing issue, Nelson said.
Clarification: Based on information from the county, a previous version of this story incorrectly identified the last day Connolly would work for the county. It would be July 23. The story also has been updated to reflect that the one county employee in the department is an executive secretary, not Connolly.