High-Ranking County Executive Prepares for Abrupt Departure

Mark Denny, a former political aide who has served as the Orange County’s second-highest executive since 2013, is leaving his job on Thursday.

In a memo to staff, county CEO Frank Kim said Denny, whose title is chief operating officer, has accepted a position as Dana Point’s deputy city manager. He starts in Dana Point next Monday.

“This is a great career move for Mark as he will be able to focus on areas in which he is passionate – parks and public works,” Kim wrote. “I will definitely miss our daily deliberations on the many opportunities and challenges we faced together."

In emailed comments to Voice of OC, Denny said he's grateful to have been a part of "significant milestones" at the county, like a new animal shelter and a master plan for the county Civic Center in downtown Santa Ana.

"We accomplished some very innovative things in OC Parks, expanded the system with significant donations of open space and park acquisitions and trained and developed the next generation of park leaders," Denny said.

The total compensation of Dana Point's assistant city manager last year was $246,000, which is $91,000 less than Denny's, according to data from the Transparent California website.

Asked about the possible pay cut, Denny said: "Money is not always the driving factor for change; I’m excited to serve the city of Dana Point. Additionally, with respect to compensation, county employees contribute significantly more in pension contributions than city employees do."

Denny rose to prominence in the county's Republican political establishment during the 1990s, when he served as an aide to high-level electeds like former state Assemblyman and Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle.

In 1996, Denny pleaded guilty to election fraud for trying to blunt Democratic votes in an Assembly election while working as an aide to Pringle when he was the speaker of the Assembly. The scheme involved circulating nominating petitions for a decoy Democratic candidate.

Denny later resurrected his career, becoming a chief of staff to former Supervisor Bill Campbell. After a short stint in the private sector following Campbell’s first term in office, Denny returned to the county as the parks director.

He was promoted to chief operating officer in July 2013.

Part of his duties were to oversee the county Registrar of Voters, which conducts elections. In 2014, Denny lost his election oversight responsibilities after Nick Berardino, who at the time headed the Orange County Employees Association, said it was an inappropriate position for a man with an election fraud conviction.  However, Denny did keep oversight of the election office’s budget.

In 2014, Denny was among several officials called out by county auditors for approving no-bid contracts given to a friend of a high-ranking parks official. The contracts were intentionally split up to avoid scrutiny from the county Board of Supervisors.

More recently, Denny temporarily took over the management of Dana Point Harbor – which is owned and operated by the county – after the harbor’s director, Brad Gross, resigned in the wake of a critical audit. The audit found employees of the county were abusing a program that gave them discounted stays at a harbor hotel.

In his comments to Voice of OC, Denny cited several of his accomplishments, which included: an expansion of park space, innovation at the public works department, reduction of the number of county departments, and progress on addressing homelessness.

"I am grateful for all the opportunities I had to serve the people of Orange County."

Until a replacement COO is found, Denny’s duties will be taken over by his deputies, Jessica Witt and Lilly Simmering.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.