Santana: Orange County Faces a Public Safety Leadership Crisis

Orange County Sheriff's Department Academy class. (Photo credit: OCSD)

Just about every single regional public safety agency in Orange County is facing a total leadership crisis.

Sheriff Sandra Hutchens recently announced her retirement, amidst a deepening crisis over the department’s use of jail informants where Judge Thomas Goethals all but called her a liar over her department’s stonewalling of records. Sheriff Deputies, through their union, are suing her alleging Orange County jails are a total mess.

Her credibility is shot.

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, also wounded by the same jailhouse informant scandal as well as audits uncovering leadership issues and lawsuits by investigators alleging political corruption, next year faces a stiff re-election challenge from a well-funded challenger, County Supervisor Todd Spitzer.

Orange County Fire Authority Chief Jeff Bowman, who heads another regional agency in crisis, also recently stepped down just after a managers’ union gave him a vote of no-confidence.

Orange County supervisors – who so far haven’t touched the issue of public safety management other than to grant substantial salary and benefit raises to Sheriff’s Deputies and dismantle the Office of Independent Review – are in for a possibly rough year.

They potentially will have to lead.

County supervisors have largely avoided just about every tough decision on installing an appropriate accountability mechanism over themselves – stalling on the implementation of an ethics commission and leaving key accountability slots like the Performance Auditor empty.

Yet coming out of Labor Day is traditionally the start of the political season.

That means local issues heat up, get caught up in campaigns.

This past election cycle, the issue locally was homelessness, and it drove the county supervisors race that ultimately witnessed the re-election of incumbent County Supervisor Andrew Do – who set up the Courtyard Transition Center to help homeless people in his district a month before election day.

What will the narrative of 2018 shape up to be?

Four congressional races are expected to put a national focus on Orange County this year.

In North County, longtime incumbent Congressman Ed Royce is looking at a host of active challengers. Down in South County, Congresswoman Mimi Walters is also drawing challenges early. Huntington Beach Congressman Dana Rohrabacher may even draw an internal challenge as well as a host of Democratic challengers. I keep running into candidates who are challenging Congressman Darrell Issa as well.

That’s not to mention the ongoing recall of State Sen. Josh Newman over his vote on the state gas tax hike.

Yet this year, here in Orange County we have a special opportunity to really engage our office seekers in a real, local debate about our quality of life.

Given the stark public safety leadership crisis in Orange County, we need to be asking some tough questions of our regional leaders rather than getting distracted by the usual horse-race drama driven by pollsters.