Santana: OC Supervisors Continue to Face an Accountability Crisis

Orange County Supervisors appear poised this week to move forward with a radical reshaping of how county government works, considering an ambitious plan to expand the powers and scope of auditors currently reviewing the Sheriff’s Department with the aim of adding the social services and probation departments, as well as the District Attorney and Public Defender, as clients.

Today, Supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer and Andrew Do will once again convene a special meeting to offer guidance to their consultant on what to bring to the full board on Tuesday.

Yet there are real questions whether county supervisors have really put in the homework and outreach to pull off such a vast expansion of their powers.

I still question the fundamental premise: Does this board of supervisors have the appetite for the price tag – budgetary and political – that would accompany expanding auditors into so many agencies at once?

I doubt it.

Supervisor Michelle Steel is already expected on Tuesday to demand that Auditor Controller Eric Woolery prepare a cost report for the county ethics commission proposed by her colleagues on the board last month (Steel quietly dissented on the dais, silently working on papers during the entire public debate).

Don’t forget that public auditing is a full contact sport in the OC.

Woolery is the same Auditor Controller currently locked in a heated battle with county officials and Supervisor Shawn Nelson questioning the recent authorization of his large pension payment.

The last performance auditor, Philip Cheng, was let go because he was too soft. Former Audit Director Steve Danley did the most aggressive audits, almost making CEO, but ended up stalling at human resources director before he retired in frustration at the lack of accountability inside the system.

The current crisis with OIR is largely the product of supervisors’ own rush to action back in 2008 after a brutal inmate beating murder that raised questions about our jails.

Supervisors always describe OIR as a civilian review commission, except it’s not. They like to blame current director Stephen Connolly because he’s never helped them publicly sell that misdirection. He also doesn’t have the budget to do much – other than be a target during every budget deliberation.

This year, his future appears to have been horse traded away.

Supervisors are also currently without a performance auditor, given that Peter Hughes has reportedly left his post last week to take a job with Los Angeles County as an auditor.

Hughes, you’ll remember was very publicly given the Performance Auditor job (a political hot potato if there ever was one) after I pointed out the county’s ongoing accountability crisis in August writing about a host of auditors under political pressures.

For all the recent talk of ethics commissions, independent review, performance auditors, internal auditors, there hasn’t been that much focus or attention on auditing from supervisors or anyone else.

The last thing any politician wants is an independent set of eyes on things.

So far, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas – whose evolving jailhouse snitch scandal primarily lit the fuse behind the current effort – seems to have largely blown off the entire process of expanding the Office of Independent Review.

Meanwhile, Public Defender Frank Ospino – an appointed agency head whose defense lawyers uncovered Rackauckas’ worse scandal in office – is intensely opposed.

At a public hearing on the issue last month, Ospino immediately shot to DEFCON 1, publicly raising a host of concerns with Spitzer about potential violations of attorney-client privileges affecting public defender clients.

Affected agency heads, like Mike Ryan with the Social Services Agency and Steve Sentman with the Probation Department, have kept their heads low and quiet during the entire debate so far.

These are the smartest folks in government.

They know it’s all bullshit.

Always watch the real insiders.

They know which way the waves break.

Expansion of OIR is an idea that will fall apart once a price tag appears, not to mention all the different labor negotiations that would be triggered by attempting to change work environments throughout so many agencies.

When the collapse arrives, supervisors will be left with the tough open question of what to do with the Office of Independent Review at the Sheriff’s Department, given that they voted earlier this year to sunset the current director’s contract on Dec. 31.

They haven’t spent a second on that, despite spending tens of thousands on a consultant study for expansion.

We are now past October – where the traditional sluggish holiday pace of public executives sets in – meaning that when Stephen Connolly’s OIR contract expires on New Year’s Eve there are no options on the table for replacing him.

That’s what I warned about back in September, noting that supervisors could well have just spent the money on a social worker for a much-needed homeless check-in center at the civic center.