Orange County supervisors are poised Tuesday to backpedal from their plans to transform oversight of the Sheriff’s Department by the end of August, instead opting to keep Steve Connolly, the current head of the Office of Independent Review, on board for another four months.
The county would also hire Connolly's longtime colleague, police oversight consultant Michael Gennaco, to help supervisors develop a replacement model, under a proposal from supervisors Todd Spitzer and Andrew Do that’s up for a vote by the full Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
The move, if approved, would represent 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 a warning from Sheriff Sandra Hutchens 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. But Connolly was still on his way out as of Aug. 31.
Now, Spitzer and Do want their colleagues to extend Connolly’s contract until the end of the year, paying him $17,500 per month plus a $765-per-month car allowance. Gennaco would make $10,000 per month.
They say the extension is necessary to more thoughtfully explore new models and potential leaders, and was recommended by Gennaco, who has long worked with Connolly as principals at the law firm OIR Group.
It was “quite frankly, very gentlemanly of [Connolly] to agree to stay,” Spitzer said at an ad-hoc committee meeting Monday. “He’s been very, very professional about this.”
But the proposal was met with criticism from the meeting’s only public commenter, who questioned why supervisors would rely on someone who’s very close with Connolly to overhaul the model if they’re so disappointed in Connolly’s work.
“There are many other experts in the country that could do better than he could,” said Lake Forest resident Randy Johnson, noting that Gennaco was also involved in developing Orange County’s current model. “I don’t understand the logic. That’s why this doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Do responded that Gennaco was recently hired by Cincinnati officials to help with police oversight, demonstrating his national recognition as an expert. Gennaco also headed Fullerton’s city investigation of the 2011 beating death of Kelly Thomas at the hands of police.
Johnson replied that Gennaco’s colleague, Connolly, has been a “failure” in Orange County, given the lack of public accounting for incidents like the deputy shooting death of Marine Sgt. Manuel Loggins, Jr. and the recent jailhouse informant scandal.
The meeting ended up becoming an extended debate between Johnson and the two supervisors that lasted about half an hour.
Among his concerns, Johnson was bothered by the notion that supervisors would change course to keep Connolly on after they proclaimed he’s ineffective.
“I just don’t believe in rewarding failure. I never have…and when I see this in my government, it bothers me,” he said.
Do, meanwhile, responded that recruiting a different temporary director would take 30 to 60 days, while Connolly’s contract expires next week.
But Johnson noted that the supervisors’ plans to get rid of Connolly date back more than two months. “You should have done your homework” on this, Johnson said.
The OIR office was set up by county supervisors in 2008, following the jailhouse beating 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, 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.
The office struggled over the years to meet the expectations of supervisors. Its role has been confused with a civilian review commission for the Sheriff’s Department, with supervisors often wanting Connolly to have a more public presence. They’ve also often commented that Connolly should issue more reports like his counterpart in Los Angeles County.
The result has been confusion over what Connolly should be doing and threats from supervisors that they would defund his office.