A months-long drama over how to change Orange County supervisors’ oversight over county law enforcement seems to be coming to a close, with a final decision slated for next Tuesday on whether to expand the duties of the county’s Office of Independent Review (OIR).
Currently, the OIR’s purview is limited to Sheriff’s Department operations. The proposal before the supervisors would expand it to include the District Attorney’s office, Probation Department, Public Defender’s office, and Social Services Agency.
The proposal also calls for the OIR, which reports directly to supervisors, to conduct audits of department functions, review incidents that present legal liability to the county, recommend reforms, and oversee jail monitors, among other things.
Given prior comments and votes by supervisors, including an approval this week, the proposal is likely to pass, but just barely. Supervisors Todd Spitzer, Andrew Do, and Lisa Bartlett have supported expansion, while Shawn Nelson and Michelle Steel have opposed it.
Spitzer, who is a bitter political foe of District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, has led the push for expanding the OIR’s oversight in the wake of the jailhouse informants scandal that has rocked the DA’s office and Sheriff’s Department over the past year.
He and Nelson have said that the longtime OIR director, Steve Connolly, failed to keep board members apprised of developments in that case.
The scandal involves misuse of informants to gain incriminating statements, withholding of key evidence from defendants, alleged perjury by law enforcement, and convicted criminals being released early due to the botching of their cases.
The issues have gained national attention and led to calls for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation of Rackauckas’ office.
Rackauckas, his prosecutors’ and investigators’ unions, and Public Defender Frank Ospino have fought hard against the proposal. Meanwhile, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens – who says the OIR model has worked great in her department – supports the expansion.
Among the key changes to the proposal now before supervisors is that it prohibits OIR’s feedback from being used to punish employees, and that the office can’t affect the wages, hours, or working conditions of union-represented county employees.
At this week’s meeting, the top attorney for the largest county workers’ union thanked supervisors for those changes.
But there still are concerns about the impacts of the ordinance on “existing disciplinary processes” and the possibility that OIR triggers some sort of investigation that wouldn’t occur otherwise, said Don Drozd, general counsel for the Orange County Employees Association.
Drozd said the union, which represents about 12,000 of county’s 18,000 workers, would still like to meet and confer with top county officials about that issue.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the vote that was taken this week. It was to give the first of two approvals of the item, not to place the first approval on next week’s agenda. We regret the error.