Orange County supervisors moved Tuesday to remove independent oversight of their actions, county finances, and the practices of the Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s Office.
The most significant of the supervisors’ actions came at the suggestion of Supervisor Shawn Nelson. He and three other supervisors voted to prepare actions taking away the auditing and financial control functions of the office of elected county Auditor-Controller Eric Woolery, and to instead have those staff report to the supervisors and county CEO Frank Kim, who also reports to the supervisors.
The move is scheduled for another vote by supervisors June 26 to implement it. Supervisor Todd Spitzer abstained.
Woolery’s office is in charge of auditing county departments and controlling when payments of county funds are made or not made.
The auditor-controller is independently elected by county voters, and Woolery won re-election last week with about 75 percent of the vote. But he has repeatedly drawn the ire of Nelson and other county supervisors since he took office in early 2015, including his questioning of the legality of supervisors’ taxpayer funded mailers to voters that prominently feature the supervisors.
A second action by supervisors eliminates all funding for the county’s Office of Independent Review, which is tasked with monitoring liability issues from any potentially problematic practices within the Sheriff’s Department, DA’s office and other county law enforcement agencies.
That action came weeks after the supervisors hired a new head of the office, Kevin Rogan, who started work in April after supervisors left the office vacant for two years.
Nelson and Supervisor Michelle Steel have long opposed the office, which was created in response to the 2006 jail beating death of Derek Chamberlain. And during the county’s annual budget hearing Tuesday, supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do joined them in forming a three-member majority to delete all funding for it starting July 1.
In a third action Tuesday, at Do’s suggestion, the supervisors voted 4-1 to eliminate all four staff positions at the county performance auditor’s office, which the supervisors have kept vacant for years. They instead opted to create a process where a roster of private contractors would perform specific audits at the request of supervisors, and report back to the supervisors.
The supervisors would select the auditing contractors without competitive bidding. And the audit topics would be chosen by the supervisors. Spitzer abstained on that as well.
“Today was one of the worst days I’ve ever seen on the Board of Supervisors, [in terms of] reversing transparency and openness in government,” Spitzer said in a phone interview after the meeting.
“It’s funny how, you know, they just defunded one oversight [department], they failed to hire another oversight position [on law enforcement] for 2.5 years, and the one oversight [agency] elected by the people…they want to dismantle,” Woolery said of the supervisors.
“It’s kind of interesting what they think is important, which is, ‘Let them do what they want without any check and balance.’ ”
“The impact’s really bad for the county,” Woolery added. “Twenty years ago or so, the auditor-controller was criticized for not being assertive enough [in preventing the 1994 bankruptcy]. I come in, I’m assertive to try to hold checks and balances, be that transparency within the county government structure. And now all of a sudden when I do my job, they want to take it away…I think it leads to another financial crisis within the county.”
“They want to take away any person who might tell them something they don’t want to hear,” Woolery said. “It probably will lead to another problem, because…they’ll put somebody in as a lapdog. That’s what they want…They want somebody to just write checks and be their ATM machine, instead of [doing] their job and [questioning].”
In response, Do said the supervisors are setting up a new, more independent auditing function through individual contracts with experts.
“The board voted to preserve funding to hire subject matter experts to do audits. There is no greater independence than an outside auditor,” Do said in a phone interview. Nelson didn’t return a message seeking a response to Woolery’s criticisms.
Shortly after he took office in 2015, Woolery challenged a retroactive $247,000 pension payment for Nelson, who publicly had refused to take a county government pension and then succeeded in getting a ballot measure passed that he later said required him to receive a pension.
In 2016, Woolery temporarily blocked taxpayer payments on several mass mailers from Do and Supervisor Lisa Bartlett in the weeks before the June primary election. The mailers prominently featured the supervisors’ names as Do ran in a tight re-election and Bartlett sought a seat on the county Republican Party’s central committee.
Woolery said at the time he was concerned the mailers may violate state laws limiting how elected officials can display their names on publicly-funded mail.
“We have…very weird dynamics going on, where we have an auditor-controller that feels like he actually oversees this Board of Supervisors. Okay?” Do said at a supervisors’ meeting in November. “He feels like he’s the one who gets to review, actually, the legality of everything we do.”
In January, the former internal audit director in Woolery’s office filed a lawsuit alleging Woolery misused taxpayer money by having government employees drive his children to and from school and other activities during work hours and babysit them at the office.
Woolery declined to comment about the lawsuit’s allegations at the time, saying he couldn’t speak about ongoing litigation, particularly when a person leaves county employment.
On Tuesday, when Nelson proposed a “take over” of Woolery’s office’s functions, he said he was concerned about “the size” of Woolery’s staff and an unspecified “suspicion” that employees aren’t performing the office’s core duties.
“There’s 448 people working there right now. And I’m just not convinced that 448’s the right number. I don’t know,” Nelson said. “I have a lot of suspicion that – that there’s a lot of folks that work there that do things that don’t involve auditing and writing checks.”
Nelson didn’t provide any further details.
“I think it’s done out of revenge,” Woolery said in a phone interview after Tuesday’s meeting.
“I tried to find out and hold Supervisor Nelson accountable over his pension, and he got hit hard [on] that in his congressional race,” Woolery said, referring to Nelson’s unsuccessful run this year in the 39th Congressional District primary.
“And here we are a week and a half later [after the election], and he wants to dismantle [an office] that’s been in place for 60 years, in two weeks. I mean where does that come from? It’s not well thought-out.”
Nelson “lost that [congressional] race because they kept hitting him with that pension issue,” Woolery said. “All the mailers I saw from that were [talking about Nelson having a] ‘big ol’ pension,’ ”
Nelson didn’t return a phone call seeking his response to Woolery. This is his last year on the Board of Supervisors because of term limits.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Nelson got support to bring the auditor-controller issue back in two weeks, on June 26, for action to move forward with taking over most of the staff from Woolery’s office.
County CEO Frank Kim said he needed more than two weeks to figure out how to absorb hundreds of employees into his office, but Nelson said he should just do it and sort out remaining issues later.
Nelson suggested Kim “figure out who all the people are now, and come back with right-sizing it later.”
County Counsel Leon Page, who reports to the supervisors, said they had complete authority to bring the auditing and controlling functions of Woolery’s office to instead fall under the supervisors and county CEO.
Woolery said he disagrees.
“County Counsel is by state law [the supervisors’] attorney,” Woolery said. “That’s why we’re trying to get our own legal counsel through our bill.”
A state bill, AB 3068, from Tom Daly (D-Anaheim), would grant Woolery and other counties’ auditor-controllers the ability to get their own legal counsel when there’s a conflict of interest with county counsel.
It passed unanimously on the Assembly floor on May 30 and now is before the state Senate.
“If a county counsel has a conflict of interest because he or she cannot ethically represent both sides in a disagreement between the board and county officers that have authority to act independently of the board, the county counsel acts as the legal advisor to the board of supervisors,” states the Assembly staff analysis of the bill.
As for the other supervisors’ support for taking over his office’s functions, Woolery said, “I would think it’s the mailers…Do had a big problem with the mailers. I’m not sure about Steel and Bartlett.”
In a phone interview, Do said Woolery’s answer failed to address supervisors Bartlett and Steel’s support for the move.
“Conveniently, he did not address the other people – the other supervisors, other than [Do and Nelson],” Do said.
“It’s very ironic that here I am – that wasn’t my motion, I didn’t even second my motion, and all of a sudden I’m the reason why that was brought forth. To me [it’s better] if he would just focus on his work,” Do said of Woolery.
“He’s certainly not shy about using the legislative process to…gain power for his department,” Do said, adding Woolery has to “respect” that process at the county level as well.
Office of Independent Review
The law enforcement oversight office, the Office of Independent Review, was empty for two years, after supervisors pushed out the original director, Stephen Connolly in March 2016 and did not bring on a replacement until April 2018.
Spitzer pushed for a more aggressive approach from the office, but found little support among the other supervisors, several of whom have been endorsed by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens. Spitzer is running against Rackauckas in November for DA.
On Tuesday, Spitzer asked why the office, known as OIR, wasn’t looking into the DA and sheriff’s alleged misuse of jailhouse informants, which has led to overturned or reduced convictions in at least six violent crimes. A state appeals court unanimously ruled the violations of rights by the DA and Sheriff’s Department were “systemic.”
Spitzer said he wanted Rogan, the newly-hired OIR director, to “do the job, and deal with the really, really difficult issues that are facing this county, like corruption, and hiding evidence…and having trials and convictions reversed. That’s meaningful work.”
His colleagues disagreed.
“The idea that someone’s looking over our shoulder doesn’t always fix anything. It doesn’t even help sometimes,” Nelson said.
“What went on in terms of the confidential informants – whatever happened already happened,” Do said, adding the office is “limited” in its ability to look into that issue.
“I’m against the OIR being used as a tool for campaigning,” Do added in the interview Tuesday, referring to Spitzer’s run against Rackauckas. “I will not allow Supervisor Spitzer to use [the OIR office for] campaign tactics.”
“The OIR has been in existence for what, eight years – six of which Todd Spitzer has been on this board. And OIR has been an utter failure by his own admission.”
As for the performance audit changes – eliminating the staff positions and having supervisors order audits from a roster of contractors – Do said the new direction is more independent than the prior approach.
“The board voted to preserve funding to hire subject matter experts to do audits. There is no greater independence than an outside auditor,” Do said in the interview.
“When we hire someone and they are on staff, guess what? They are under our influence,” he said of the supervisors.
“Then you have supervisors like Todd Spitzer that hound people, that [call] staff” in the “middle of night to browbeat them to do what he wants them to do, guess what? That [influences] the process.”
Asked about concerns his proposed performance audit approach of supervisors picking and choosing audit topics, Do said that was how it worked previously.
“What we are doing with the subject matter experts…the on-call experts list, basically is no different” than before, Do said.
“[The] board directed” what the performance auditor should look into. “It’s no different,” Do said.
The only difference, he said, is instead of staff who are “subject to our daily influence, now we have independent auditors that will come in and actually have insight into that industry to help us…look into best practices.”
During the budget hearing Tuesday, the supervisors also voted to authorize a $24 million increase in discretionary funding to the Sheriff’s Department and $4 million to the District Attorney’s Office, which both departments said were needed to maintain the existing service levels.
The increase was mostly attributed to salary and benefit increases for the existing staff, which the supervisors unanimously authorized in September 2016.
The county Health Care Agency and Social Services Agency received no discretionary funding increases, under the supervisors’ votes Tuesday. Discretionary money is portion of county funds the supervisors fully control.
The final budget comes back for approval at the supervisors’ next meeting on Tuesday, June 26.
The largest county-level election campaign account – with more than $1.5 million as of the latest reports – is that of county sheriff’s deputies’ union, which also represents District Attorney investigators.
“I don’t think you’ve ever come here and this board has said ‘no’ to the Sheriff’s Department,” Spitzer told Hutchens on Tuesday. “On par, we generally say ‘yes.’ ”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Supervisor Todd Spitzer voted against the changes to the three oversight items. Spitzer abstained. Voice of OC regrets the error.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.