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.

  • Silence Dogood

    Wow…guess the old adage of those who make money in politics are crooked applies now more than ever. How is it this man still has a job in OC after his shenanigans???!!! Unbelievable.

  • Jacki Livingston

    Denny was one of the County bigshots that I desperately sent letters to, begging for his help after I was grilled like a cheese sandwich by the FBI and Health and Human Services Investigators. He never bothered to respond.

  • OCservant_Leader

    Aha – Denny just hit his three-year anniversary for his pension spike and it’s time to go folks. Sweet.
    At Dana Point he can thoroughly clean out those stinky Harbor contracts to insiders. His job hasn’t changed, he still getting paid by both public tills.
    The scheme has reversed – now he is an employee of Dana Point but will get consultant contracts from County. If he has mastered the game he is most likely collecting checks from a couple of public agencies as well.

    • LFOldTimer

      Thanks for giving us the rest of the story. You are a valued asset to the comment board.

      • OCservant_Leader

        Thank you. I have lots more to share.

  • RyanCantor

    “The total compensation of Dana Point’s assistant city manager last year was $246,000 . . .”

    You’ve got to be kidding me! DP has fewer than 35,000 people. $7 for every man, woman, and child for an DEPUTY City Manager?

    That’s absurd.

    • LFOldTimer

      The Transparent California website is your friend. You’d be shocked at what some of the other pampered city officials make in neighboring cities. Dana Point is not the exception. It’s the rule. The problem is not isolated. It’s systemic. Like a metastasis. Generally in the employment market reward is correlated with risk. The more risk you take – and succeed – the more you’re compensated. Not in government. Risk is pretty much nonexistent. One could be a complete nincompoop and remain on the government payroll. This is because the decision makers who hire and manage pay their help with other people’s money and are never held accountable for their mistakes. Concomitantly, the incompetent worker has gold-plated employment rights that, for all intent and purposes, eliminate termination as an option. So the circle has been closed. This explains in a nutshell why we see one government failure after another and why those who are subject to great risks in the workplace despise government operations.

      • Cnty_Slave

        Very true. That short stump IT Director makes $200k for failed services and a lousy network. Oh wait “it’s the vendors fault, we’re helpless” I forgot. His team of HR nightmare rejects prove the nincompoop theory. Outside of our realm they would have been terminated, but here just bounced around until some sap takes them. We’ve watched things get worse year after year while the useless get rewarded.

  • Bill Colver

    “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.”

    How is it that all these government hating conservatives always seem to gravitate back to government? They hate government so much they work there their entire lives.

  • John Claxton

    This guy was dirty as dirty could be. Just another good old boy who dished out no bid contracts to those in favor with the BOS. I hope the good people of Dana Point let their elected officials know it’s not ok and that they expect more.

    • Robert Jordan

      Ah, Mr. Claxton with more pot/kettle BS. From how many County departments were you fired? Was it just two, Animal Care and Public Administrator/Public Guardian? Whatever you did was so egregious even Todd Spitzer who wanted so bad to help you to make John Williams look like a putz couldn’t even come to your aid.

      There may be some shiesters in County government. But perhaps you should save your venom for those who actually deserve it. Better yet, come clean with your own pecadilloes before you throw stones at others, tough guy.