Orange County supervisors Tuesday in a sharply split vote hired a consultant to help design a new oversight model for the Sheriff’s Department, amid an intense debate about keeping the current office head on board and his close relationship with the consultant.

Consultant Michael Gennaco’s contract was approved in a 3-2 vote, with supervisors Shawn Nelson and Michelle Steel opposing. And the extension of current office head Steve Connolly’s contract by four months passed 4-1, with Nelson against.

In his dissent, Nelson said he disagreed with warnings by Sheriff Sandra Hutchens that federal investigators could ramp up their probe of county jails if Connolly’s contract isn’t extended.

“The federal authorities are not stupid,” said Nelson. “The Office of Independent Review has not done independent review of the sheriff’s department, the entire time” it’s been in existence.

On the shooting of Marine Sgt. Manuel Loggins, he said, there was “total absence” of information from Connolly. “No help, no recommendation…zero.  This is all a fantasy.”

Regarding his recommendation to keep Connolly on board for the next few months, Gennaco noted that Hutchens is supportive of Connolly and that it will be helpful for Gennaco to have him available as he researches what’s worked and what hasn’t.

Spitzer, meanwhile, called Gennaco “one of the nation’s leading experts in this area” who would be a valuable asset for Spitzer and Supervisor Andrew Do as they explore what kind of model to set up by the beginning of next year.

It was also important, he added, to expand the oversight role to other criminal justice-related agencies at the county, such as the public defender’s office and probation department.

“We don’t have somebody in this county who is our eyes and ears who reports to us” and addresses very difficult and sensitive issues that are brought to supervisors’ attention, Spitzer said.

“We are not appropriate stewards of our oversight.”

Supervisor Steel, meanwhile, questioned how Gennaco could be independent when he and Connolly are both principals at Gennaco’s law firm, OIR Group and worked together for years.

“So how much can Mr. Gennaco be independent?” asked Steel. “[I] really doubt that.”

For his part, Gennaco said his recommendations will be his and his alone.

The move represents the second major backtrack from supervisors’ recent plans for the office. In June, citing a lack of aggressive oversight, they vowed to defund the office and let Connolly’s contract expire at the end of August.

Then, after Hutchens’ warning that such a move could prompt greater federal scrutiny of the county’s jails, supervisors reversed themselves on the defunding and kept the budget in place.

You can contact Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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