Santana: County Government’s Full Employment Act for Local Politicos

Brian Probolsky (left) is the chief of staff to Supervisor Andrew Do (right). (Photo credit: Twitter and Andrew Do for Supervisor 2016)

This morning, Orange County taxpayers and county workers once again get to welcome county Supervisor Andrew Do’s chief of staff, Brian Probolsky, back into the civil service ranks – this time at the county landfill, after finishing his latest campaign stint helping narrowly re-elect Do this past November.

Apparently, Do’s narrow margin of victory may have soured their relationship as well as all the questions raised about the mountain of taxpayer-funded county mailers sent out by Do’s office in the last few months of the campaign.

According to multiple sources, there has been an ongoing blitz inside the county to find a landing spot for Probolsky since the campaign ended.

Apparently, in December that connection arrived with a middle manager job at – you guessed it – OC Waste & Recycling, where many influential county execs (including former county CEO Mike Giancola, current deputy CEO Cymantha Atkinson and current state Assemblyman Matt Harper) have spent time in the trenches.

OC Waste & Recycling – as an enterprise fund (which means supervisors can argue they are bilking industry insiders and not taxpayers) is an easy landing pad for political hacks.

Numerous sources have been reaching out in recent weeks signaling that the fix was in for a county job for Probolsky, also an elected Moulton Niguel Water District Board member, as he and Do sought to part ways.

Insiders knew who was going to get this public sector job. I just feel bad for the person who thought they might actually have had a chance and bothered with the hassle of providing all the detailed information required in the application.

I will never comprehend why county managers (who oddly enough have their own union) allow themselves to be gamed by politicians steering jobs and contracts to their network of aides and contractors – especially when it involves the use of state and federal government funds – which is at the heart of every county transaction because of grants and pass-through allocations.

Yet, given the absolute lack of any kind of real law enforcement in our county regarding political crime, our anemic ethics commission and no performance auditor, it’s no surprise.

I still recall several years back when then-HR Director Steve Danley (and former performance auditor) flew up to Sacramento to fight back a bill sponsored by former state Senator Lou Correa seeking to take away hiring authority from county of Orange officials based on corruption and politicization concerns.

Danley passionately argued to state legislators that officials like himself were reforming HR hiring practices.

Yet within a short time, he retired in protest as HR director after – ironically enough – confronting Probolsky about attending his water district board meetings on county time.

Months after retiring, Danley co-authored a book with former Internal Auditor Peter Hughes choc full of stories about management dysfunction at the county of Orange.

Speaking of dysfunction…

Probolsky is the second chief of staff to part ways with his boss this month (Supervisor Todd Spitzer’s chief of staff, Jeff Lalloway, also abruptly quit).

Late last week, OC Waste & Recycling confirmed that Probolsky starts Monday as a contract program-support manager (admin manager II) – earning as much as $138K – for what looks like a pretty technical job.

Odd that no one inside OC Waste & Recycling was competitive for such a technical gig, given all the talk in recent years about succession planning for executives inside agencies.

I would be curious to see how Probolsky’s answers to the posted questions for the job compare to other candidates.

For all the talk of fiscal conservatism and hiring freezes from Orange County supervisors, every time in recent memory that an insider from the fifth floor of the Hall of Administration wants to move into the civilian side of the county, the wheels are greased.

For the record, I like Brian Probolsky, know he is capable and considered hiring him myself when Voice of OC first launched back in 2010 to work with our digital efforts. I also have had to report his dealings with county HR staff – which sanctioned him for not properly documenting his time off for attending his water district board meetings as an elected official and also threatening county HR staff with political payback for their probe.

Now, as many supervisors have indicated in recent years, there are advantages to having executives in agencies that also have worked on the political floors of the county Hall of Administration.

Yet it’s also critically important when that kind of staff transition occurs that it be handled in a very transparent manner so it’s clear what taxpayers are getting at the agency level and why.

Politicizing the civil service ranks can be very dangerous.

Consider the case of former Santa Ana City Councilman Carlos Bustamante, a rising OC GOP star whose party connections with county supervisors forced taxpayers to hire him as an executive in the planning department and protected him throughout his public sector career. Bustamante later pled guilty to a host of sexual crimes involving his female subordinates.

Former Public Administrator John Williams took over that office with glowing support from county supervisors. And little experience. He just about destroyed the office until he was forced out.

The examples of politicized executive hiring, especially in Orange County, never seem to run out and I feel like I’ve been writing this same story for more than a decade – just substituting a different name, political mentor and receiving agency each time an aide needs an exit.

In this case, I reached out to the director of OC Waste & Recycling to hear about his plans for the new high-level hire. I’m still waiting. I also reached out to Do to hear about the transition and I’m still waiting – even though this transition comes during the Lunar New Year, albeit a busy time for Do and the First District.

That collective silence leaves one to conclude that taxpayers are, once again, on the hook for another county supervisors’ political bar tab.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that state Sen. Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia) sponsored legislation to change Orange County’s hiring practices. The legislation was sponsored by former state Sen. Lou Correa, who now represents Orange County’s 46th District in the U.S. House. We regret the error.