Santana: The Catch-22 of County Politics

Supervisor Shawn Nelson at a county supervisors' meeting.

Call it the ultimate Catch 22 of political life in Orange County.

Campaign against government, then try to govern.

The inconsistencies are often ugly.

This week, it’s Republican Supervisor Shawn Nelson’s turn, with his evolving ballet dance as he and his Chief of Staff Denis Bilodeau work quietly to obtain the government pension Nelson largely campaigned against, then signed up for, then refused, then signed up for again.

It’s the age-old challenge we face behind the Orange Curtain, where an aging Republican ideology declares that everything about government is a failure but desperately wants to be elected to run it all.

Nelson – generally a good county supervisor – got caught up in his own campaign rhetoric a few years ago when he got carried away with the anti-pension frenzy and started thumping his chest that he didn’t want a pension.

Yet he quickly found out that’s expensive, maybe illegal and certainly clunky for human resources.

He’s quietly been trying to dig himself out of that hole ever since he was elected.

No such luck for the county workers who have to toil under the electeds’ Catch 22.

We might have witnessed an interesting debate Tuesday on the issue – whether it’s ok for taxpayers to payout nearly $250,000 for a government-funded pension for Nelson given his very public rebuke of one in 2010 – but supervisors apparently short-circuited a public debate.

Invoking a little-known parliamentary rule – called Rule 22 – one county supervisor can privately short circuit any debate sought by another countywide elected or department head.

Auditor Controller Eric Woolery is refusing to pay out the government invoices funding Nelson’s pension (he’s attracting fire from all sides of the county bureaucracy) because of the inconsistencies in Nelson’s stances on whether he should receive a pension.

Woolery – who sees his office as an elected fiscal watchdog – has been holding up payment since a deal was crafted earlier this year. Nelson is reportedly pushing for the entire $250,000 payment to be made immediately into his retirement account.

County Counsel Leon Page – who is hired by county supervisors – has reportedly told Woolery there’s enough legal footing to pay the bill. But Woolery wants to hire his own attorney to look at the issue, arguing that Page has a conflict because Nelson is essentially one of his bosses.

Woolery was set for a debate Tuesday until Supervisor Andrew Do (and reportedly Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, according to Woolery) used Rule 22 to pull the item.

Do said he pulled the item because he doesn’t agree with department heads hiring their own attorneys. He sees it opening a Pandora’s box.

“If county counsel tells us they don’t have a legal right to get what they are questioning, what’s there for me to vote on?,” Do said.

Do told me he knew people would surmise he cut some kind of deal to protect Nelson.

“When I did it, I fully recognized that people would say I’m doing it to protect Shawn,” Do said.

Yet Do said that’s not the case and he just reviewed all the case law sent over by county counsel.

“Whether it’s another supervisor, or Woolery, if they think I acted improperly, then give me a law that says I’m wrong,” Do said.

So the message is an auditor doesn’t need an independent attorney.

Yet when county supervisors needed former Auditor -Controller David Sundstrom to authorize their tax grab of $73 million (later deemed illegal in court), they willingly allowed Sundstrom to hire his own attorney to analyze whether it made sense to agree with supervisors.

After being allowed to hire his own attorney, Sundstrom went along with the supervisors’ scheme to raid tax dollars designated for community colleges. They also hired an independent attorney to work with his successor, Jan Grimes, when it came to defending the lawsuit against the state.

Yet now that Woolery has questions, his ability to get $25,000 to hire an outside lawyer is limited.

“Somebody with a sense of humor made this rule…the irony isn’t lost on me,” Woolery said of Rule 22.

“Rule 22 is a Catch 22,” Woolery said. “If I have a conflict with the board, I have to ask the board to get an expert to see if I have a conflict with the board.”

Yet Woolery said he isn’t going away on this one (former Supervisor Pat Bates, who also declined a pension but still doesn’t want one, is also reportedly making waves about a potential lawsuit).

“The other option is I don’t pay it. And somebody gets to sue me,” Woolery said.

That drama won’t be the only one playing out on the county supervisors’ dais this Tuesday – the last meeting of the year and of the chairmanship of Supervisor Todd Spitzer.

Spitzer’s move to change back zoning on a parcel in North Tustin where the Catholic Church is trying to develop senior housing is sure to draw fire from both sides – those who support senior housing and those who want the specific plans developed by community activists to be respected.

Over the weekend, Meghann Cuniff at the Orange County Register filed an interesting take on Spitzer’s connection to a nearby property owner who is opposed to a Catholic Church effort to rezone a property for senior housing. Our own Nick Gerda also explored the relationship earlier this year.

Supervisors on Tuesday also will be voting to keep funding the idea of expanding their failed effort to craft a silent watchdog for the county jail system (one that never mentioned a public word about an exploding snitch scandal inside the county jails).

Despite large-scale opposition from virtually every labor group representing lawyers throughout the county, supervisors will literally double down on the joke they call the Office of Independent Review and hike the spending (to nearly $30,000 a month, plus a car-allowance) on two experts to advise the county on how to expand OIR to several other departments, like the district attorney’s office (even though the district attorney blew off the county’s performance auditor earlier this year when they showed up for an audit).

Now, in a fit of concrete action, supervisors are finally moving (just as our local weather offers a nasty cold and wet preview of what may lie ahead) to purchase the vacant bus terminal building just across the street from their chambers.

The hope for many, including this columnist, is that the property be used as quickly as possible to offer some sort of shelter to the throngs of homeless people who have created a tent city of sorts out of the civic center over the past two decades creating Orange County’s own version of LA’s Skid Row.

No one will say the bus terminal will be used as a homeless facility…yet.

Let’s hope this time when supervisors don’t say anything in public, it’s a good sign they are doing the right thing.