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Orange County residents barely avoided a coup of sorts this past week when Sacramento beat back a brazen attempt by county supervisors to extend their term limits — their third unsuccessful try in the last year. 

Norberto Santana, Jr.

A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America. Subscribe now to receive his latest columns by email.

If not for the fact that Gov. Gavin Newsom doesn’t want company on an upcoming September special election ballot, OC residents would be stuck with one of the most politicized and non-transparent boards of supervisors in history. 

For decades. 

Numerous sources indicate the supervisors will strike back.

Along with a host of community leaders active on protecting term limits, I wrote columns in the past year alerting residents to these efforts every time ahead of such votes.

And every time, residents from both sides of the political spectrum stood up, got vocal and squashed these naked attempts to extend county supervisors’ power.

Yet earlier this month, while I was on vacation driving a family Jeep through Oregon forests, another term limit measure came up again.

This time, despite our news coverage ahead of the decision and lots of vocal protests from community leaders like conservative publisher Jon Fleischman, and numerous public speakers from across the political spectrum (who waited hours to address supervisors in public session), the effort narrowly passed.

Three county supervisors, Republicans’ Andrew Do, Lisa Bartlett and Democrat Doug Chaffee voting to extend their own terms with a really misleading ballot title that would have likely fooled voters.

They banked on fooling voters.

Let that sink in…

Their move was so brazen that two of their own colleagues, Republican Don Wagner and Democrat Katrina Foley, called them out on it and voted against it. 

For Orange County’s professional politicians, a seat on the board of supervisors is as cushy as it gets.

It’s more than $150,000 a year in salary, along with free health care, a $750 monthly car allowance, pension benefits and also 401K-type benefits. 

Don’t forget a million dollar staff and six-figure, free mailing to all constituents around election time — which virtually guarantees re-election for any incumbent. 

Years ago, thanks to Supervisor Bartlett, OC supervisors even cut their meeting schedule in half, going to take a city council-type schedule of only meeting a few times a month – as opposed to once a week.

Other large public agencies, like the County of LA, meet multiple days during the week.

I’ve been monitoring this local board of supervisors since 2004. And I can’t remember any time I’ve ever heard a county supervisor ask any of the four Sheriffs I’ve covered about monthly overtime expenditures. Or even who has been arrested in the last month or why, much less the implications for the county budget, which they are supposed to manage.

I’ve never heard a county supervisor ask the social service agency how many calls came into the child abuse hotline or how many foster kids are in the system or what’s happening at Juvenile Hall or how the Probation department is functioning – much less smaller agencies like the animal shelter or the public guardian. 

Other than the actions to restore fishing at Irvine Lake years back by County Supervisor Wagner, I have yet to hear a word about county parks development, funding or management from a county supervisor in public. 

That’s other than the actions by former Supervisor Michelle Steel to set up a dog beach in Newport Beach, pretty much her most high-profile legislative accomplishment before she was rewarded with her current stint in Congress. By the way, the dog beach didn’t really pan out, with environmental agencies reversing her initiative.  

Indeed, with each passing year, it seems to me that county supervisors’ list of concrete accomplishments on behalf of taxpayers get leaner and leaner. 

The pandemic showed every OC resident how badly county supervisors have managed tens of billions of dollars over the past decade, with a frayed response on most important issues whether it’s wildfires or public health. 

Even when it comes to public safety, where they have sent every extra budget dollar they can find, there have been numerous problems with no public questioning. Things like high profile jail breaks, evidence booking problems and amateurish use of jail informants – mistakes that led to criminals potentially getting off the hook – went without any public questioning from supervisors. 

Instead, OC supervisors have succeeded in erecting new buildings for themselves and high ranking government bureaucrats.

Note that out of their shiny, new $300 million new administrative building, there’s lousy teleconferencing abilities.

That came in real handy during last years’ pandemic. 

It’s what I call the ghost of the 1994 OC bankruptcy, where residents showed up in droves to let the politicians know what they thought of their reckless management of tax resources. Since then, the last thing OC county elected or appointed leaders want to do is listen to a taxpayer. 

Instead, supervisors get better and better at restricting public comment at meetings and instead focus on producing free mail for themselves.

They’re also getting better and better at cheap gimmicks to stay in power.

Years ago, they got rid of any kind of performance auditing by gutting an office designed to do just that. 

They instituted a weak form of police oversight, giving the Office of Independent Review a nice title but no mandate or money.

Faced with a County Auditor that asked questions about their pension benefits or their mailers, they gutted that office.

It’s been years since we’ve seen anything of substance from the county’s internal auditors.

Now, after the 1994 bankruptcy, a coalition of really smart, civically-connected Orange County leaders kicked around fundamental reform ideas. 

Those reform efforts never went anywhere.

The question facing residents today is whether those efforts need to be resurrected – as long as residents have the freedom to do so.

Ideas for checking county supervisors’ power and increasing accountability are varied.

Some talk about making county supervisors part-timers, who could show up in June to debate and adopt public budgets. 

And then leave – as many states like Texas do with their legislature.

Elected leaders could reconvene on a quarterly basis and publicly review budget expenditures and address any management issues that arise. They could also reconsider the CEO’s contract on a regular basis.

Supervisors could also be expanded from the current crop of five – a stunningly low number of elected officials for three million people – to as many as nine county supervisors.

Maybe the best term limit is to have a one-term, lifetime limit on service as a county supervisor.

More than 60 percent of San Bernardino county voters liked that idea when asked last November, even endorsing a salary cap of $60,000 for a county supervisor. 

What about an elected CEO? 

Like a strong mayor form of government – taken up a few years back in the city of San Diego –  one chief executive could put together a budget and be held accountable by a legislative assembly of sorts from throughout the county.

With a unique grouping of 34 cities, we already see an increasing pattern where some cities are having to step up and fund their own responses to homelessness and mental health response because county officials aren’t measuring up. 

Don’t these city leaders deserve a right to have a say on how those funds are invested? 

We also see Orange County law enforcement contract cities – about two dozen across OC – that depend on the county Sheriff for services. Those cities are getting hit really hard with contract increases – mainly because county supervisors negotiate salaries instead of city leaders. 

Shouldn’t cities that use these services have a greater say on directing these kinds of funding streams?

If Orange County residents don’t stand up and ask some really hard questions – then history will surely repeat itself. 

The question now, is whether residents can take up their county supervisors’ supposed interest in reform – aka, tinkering with term limits again and again – and instead turn it on them, prompting a more fundamental reform of Orange County government.

Thanks to the last tinkering by OC politicians in the early 2000s – when county supervisors were looking to make filling vacancies an inside affair – the county is now governed under a charter instead of as a general law jurisdiction.

That means OC residents – and voters – can do some tinkering of their own with the county government through a charter reform effort.

At minimum, such an effort could prompt a great community conversation about how to invest nearly $8 billion dollars each year with the goal of protecting our collective quality of life as opposed to just promoting politicians’ career opportunities.

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