Orange County supervisors narrowly appointed Frank Davies as the county’s top fiscal watchdog Tuesday, while breaking into an intense argument over whether his dead predecessor let staff get away with not doing their job.

County officials now are planning to have an outside investigator probe the Auditor-Controller’s Office through a performance audit.

The previous auditor-controller, Eric Woolery, was re-elected last year but died suddenly on Aug. 7 – leaving it to the supervisors to pick someone to lead the 390-person office for the remaining three-plus years of Woolery’s term.

Supervisors Lisa Bartlett and Andrew Do called for appointing Davies, a former executive at the auditor-controller’s office, saying he was well-qualified and had more than three decades of experience at the office.

But Supervisor Don Wagner wanted the board to open up the process to applications and public interviews of candidates, and said it was “disqualifying, perhaps” that Davies preferred to not serve the full remaining time in Woolery’s term.

Supervisor Do then took direct aim at Woolery and his staff, pointing to data he said showed senior staff were coming in late in the mornings and missing many of the 86 working days from May through August – the month Woolery died.

“When you have people showing up 15 of those days, 62 of those days – the highest is 73 [days], with the average time that they arrive at work 11 and 12? Is that really how we want to leave that department, in that kind of leadership?” Do said.

“And for this to go on that long, frankly I have no trust in who’s there now, and it’s going to be time that this board assert our leadership and our supervisorial function over the county departments,” he continued.

“I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to dig up dirt. This is not about…casting aspersion on the deceased. But if necessary, in order to create a context that emphasizes the need for a little bit [of] urgency, I will go there. I don’t want to. But I will go there if necessary.”

Bartlett called for those kinds of issues to be dealt with, as she argued for Davies’ appointment. “I think it is appropriate to have a qualified caretaker to really come in and address some of the concerns that I think a number of us have,” she said.

But Wagner said such concerns about employees showing up in the past were not an excuse for rushing through the appointment. “[That] is no argument for a lack of transparency in the process of going about filling the position,” Wagner said. He said the employees should be asked why they weren’t coming in – and whether it was illness, vacation, or “slacking off.”

“What were your reasons [for not coming in to the office]? We don’t have any of that here. All we have is a time period before, in large measure, the current [acting auditor-controller] was in that office,” Wagner said, referring to Deputy Auditor-Contoller Salvador Lopez.

“I find myself disturbed and troubled by my friend Eric and the way he handled that office. But that’s not a slap at the current person doing the job,” Wagner continued. “And the lack of transparency in the way the office had been run before is no reason for this board to follow down that path with respect to rushing through a replacement.”

Supervisors don’t have information about how often Davies himself showed up at the office when he worked there, nor whether he has experience in the range of auditor-controller responsibilities, Wagner added.

“All of those questions…remain unanswered, because we haven’t had the opportunity to delve into them – other than when administration walked [Davies] from office to office and say ‘hey, here’s somebody to consider with a background.’ No other candidate got walked from office to office, saying ‘hey here’s somebody else you ought to consider,’ ” Wagner said.

“No other candidate has been invited to step forward and [answer] – all these problems we’re beginning to see perhaps with Eric Woolery’s tenure, how would you handle it? What would you do to fix them?…None of that got done here.”

As for whether Davies would serve Woolery’s full remaining term, he told supervisors, “Yes. I initially said, you know, a year and a half, two [years]. But if the need and the desire is there, I am open to the possibility of fulfilling the remainder of the term.”

That didn’t satisfy Wagner.

“His response was…possibly he will, if there’s a need. That was less than a ringing endorsement of coming forward and doing this job that the board expects, that the public deserves for…the full length of the term,” he said.

Wagner asked his colleagues to open up the process to applications and public interviews of candidates. But Supervisor Michelle Steel was the only board member to vote with him, which killed his motion, and Bartlett proposed a vote to appoint Davies.

Wagner then ramped up his criticism of his colleagues, calling it a “rushed, single-candidate process that is hardly transparent, hardly open, [and] hardly how we ought to be going about doing the people’s business.”

Do then criticized Wagner for calling Woolery a “diligent civil servant” in a Voice of OC opinion piece published Monday, saying that “flies in the face of the truth.”

“So, Mr. Woolery’s diligence. He showed up at work for the last three months of his tenure in that office, [a total of] nine days. Three days in May. Four days in June. And two in July,” Do said. Those numbers are accurate, according to county access card data obtained by Voice of OC through the Public Records Act.

“He put together ‘Team Fluff,’ who are responsible for nothing more than PR…$700,000 a year for that. None of them hold any accounting degrees, and they don’t perform any of the auditing functions,” he added, pointing to mailers featuring the head of the Orange County Taxpayers’ Association and Woolery missing most meetings of county finance oversight committees.

Do and Steel pointed out that Woolery had quietly moved to Kansas late last year with his family, which county officials learned when Voice of OC first reported it in mid-August.

“He regularly worked from Kansas, where he moved to without giving anybody notice. And so, when we talk about things that we know, versus inferences as to Mr. Davies, I find that…kind of aspersion extremely critical,” Do said, aiming his criticisms at Wagner, whom he suggested had “a long-time relationship and friendship” with Woolery.

“I [shared] the same concerns about the operations of [the auditor-controller’s] office after learning from the media that the auditor-controller has been living in another state for most of the year before [his] passing,” Steel said.

Heading into the week, Supervisor Doug Chaffee had been lone holdout about his position, making him the swing vote on whether to appoint Davies or run an open candidates search. He announced his support for Davies at Tuesday’s meeting, citing his qualifications and a desire to move on.

“I see an outstanding candidate…I don’t know that we’d find anyone better if we went through a recruitment process, which will take quite a lot of time,” Chaffee said.

“I would simply like to move on. I’m not concerned so much with the past, as I am with having an outstanding person taking care of the auditor’s ship, and moving forward from there.”

Davies was approved on a split 3-to-2 vote with Bartlett, Do, and Chaffee in favor and Wagner and Steel opposing.

Last week, Bartlett sparked concerns about a potential violation of state transparency laws when she said “We collectively felt it was best to bring someone in who was not in the auditor-controller’s office, but from the outside” before the board had held its first public meeting item on the topic.

She didn’t return phone messages Thursday, Friday or Monday asking how the consensus discussion took place, whether it was through staff, and if the transparency law – known as the Ralph M. Brown Act – was violated.

She didn’t bring it up at the meeting, but Do did – saying he never spoke about the appointment with Bartlett. His statement didn’t address whether their staff communicated a majority of the supervisors’ positions to one another, which can violate state law if that’s communicated back to the supervisors.

“One last point on…whether or not there was communication…I have never spoken to you, madam chair, about this appointment,” Do said. “I want to put that on the record. Okay? Because that will be something that will be raised. I just want to put that on the record.”

When Do started to make his point, Wagner interrupted, thinking Do was about to criticize Woolery again.

“You’ve already gone off on the dead guy long enough,” Wagner said.

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

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