So You Want a Career in Orange County Government? Are You SURE?

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A wave of departures of high-level county managers and executives began in late 2011 with the resignation of David Sundstrom, the elected Auditor-Controller. Press reports were that he was returning to his roots in Sonoma County where he accepted a similar but better paying job working for the county there. Some wondered at the time if Sundstrom’s departure was a signal that something was wrong in county government that might prompt other top managers to leave.

The track record since then would seem to indicate the climate within county government may be quite toxic for anyone hoping for a career there. The Carlos Bustamante scandal broke, leading to his arrest and still pending trial on charges related to a hostile work environment and sexual harassment. Linked to the Bustamante mess, 2012 saw the apparent dismissal of Bustamante’s boss, Public Works Director Jess Carbajal.

Reports that CEO Tom Mauk’s career was in jeopardy began to swirl shortly after the Bustamante arrest, and by mid 2012, after a series of closed door performance review meetings of the Board of Supervisors, it was announced that Mauk was leaving. About that time the public statements by some of the County Supervisors that were critical of Mauk ceased. In what has the appearance of some kind of separation deal, Mauk’s last few weeks on the job were met with praising comments from most Board members and Mauk left somewhat quietly. Those who were eager to hear more dirt about county government from Mauk or the Supervisors were disappointed by the tepid closure of Mauk’s county career.

A few months before Mauk’s departure the Supervisors received a report by Steve Danley, the county’s performance auditor, which reported that Mauk had given two of his subordinates, Alisa Drakodadis and Rob Richardson, undeserved promotions and raises. So, the Supervisors ordered them rolled back. Not too long after that, Drakodadis fired a public broadside at the Supervisors alleging favoritism, cronyism and other misdeeds. She hired an attorney, placed herself on medical leave and seems to have disappeared. Has a deal been cut with her to go away quietly, or will we be hearing more from her? (In contrast, Richarson has been quiet about his feelings on the loss of his promotion).

Also departing was Mauk’s lieutenant and reported golfing buddy, Human Resources Director Carl Crown. Crown left after the scathing audit by performance auditor Steve Danley also criticized the County HR function in numerous ways, all of which seem to be well deserved. With Crown gone, Mauk appointed Danley to that position, even though Danley’s critical audit report indirectly pointed the finger at Crown’s boss, Tom Mauk. There is some speculation that Danley wants to be the next CEO, but others think he is more sane than taking on the career-ending job of CEO for Orange County.

Also during last year Supervisor Janet Nguyen replaced Supervisor John Moorlach on the Board of Directors of the county health authority, CalOptima. This organization is responsible for designing and funding the taxpayer financed medical care system throughout Orange County that pays for the health and medical care of those eligible for Medi-Cal, which is California’s version of the federal Medicaid program. While not officially a part of county government (therefore the employee count of CalOptima does not show up in the count of county employees), it is a creation of the Board of Supervisors and could probably be made a county department if the Supervisors wanted to do so.

CalOptima dispenses approximately $ 1 billion a year of federal and state taxpayer dollars to hospitals, doctors, pharmacies, and other purveyors of medical services and supplies on behalf of several hundred thousand patients in Orange County. And, under the federal Affordable Care Act (also known as Obama Care) there are estimates it will grow by several billion dollars a year in terms of the public dollars it will be dispensing. Clearly, it is big business and going to get bigger.

As 2012 closed and into 2013 we have learned that Supervisor Nguyen apparently orchestrated a massive change in CalOptima. She succeeded in getting two of her colleagues on the Board of Supervisors to vote with her to replace the CalOptima Ordinance – think of it as the statutory authorization for CalOptima to exist and how it will be governed – with a new Ordinance. This whole process has triggered an exodus of over a dozen of CalOptima’s top managers – according to news reports they all left for jobs elsewhere that paid as much if not more than they were earning here. Some think this is the sign of good people leaving a sinking ship, but only time will tell.

Recently, the Orange County Grand Jury issued a report that was critical of Supervisor Nguyen’s handling of the CalOptima restructuring and the restructuring itself. Speculation abounds about exactly what has happened in CalOpima and why, but suffice it to say that from the outside looking in there appear s to be a lot of chaos in the County Hall of Administration right now. The Board of Supervisors has to respond formally to the Grand Jury report, and at least one Board member is openly talking of restructuring the CalOptima Board again as part of the fix the organization needs. One Supervisor has been quoted as saying all 5 County Supervisors need to be on the CalOptima Board, not just one. Whether this is talk motivated by good government thinking or a desire to get in on the political largesse contributed by the medical industry to electeds holding fundraisers one can only speculate.

Amazingly in all this a new CEO has been recruited and hired by CalOptima. This fellow may be wondering what he got himself into at this point. In the meantime, the County has been seeking applications for a new County CEO to replace Tom Mauk and the Interim CEO who has been trying to run things since Mauk left. Traditionally top candidates have shied away from that job due to the reputation of what it is like to work for the Board of Supervisors in this county – when Mauk accepted the job almost 10 years ago it was after over a year of often futile attempts to recruit someone qualified and willing to take the job

Not to be outdone by administrative intrigue, rumors have surfaced that former Supervisor and Assemblyman Chris Norby, apparently unemployed at present due to his Assembly re-election loss last fall, is trying to gather endorsements for a run for the now vacant County Clerk-Recorder position. That elected position became vacant when incumbent Tom Daly was elected to the State Assembly last year. Norby should have a decent retirement from his days as a school teacher and a member of the County Board of Supervisors, but don’t be surprised if he tries to become a double or triple dipper by seeking another public office, either by election or appointment.

Also on the rumor front, speculation surfaces now and then that Supervisor John Moorlach will run for the Auditor-Controller spot vacated when Sundstrom left that office a year and a half ago. Moorlach is in the final term of his term-limited office, so the assumption is that he is looking around for another high-level job in government, even though he periodically mentions he may return to the private sector.

To top off all this turmoil, we have Todd Spitzer newly elected to the Board of Supervisors replacing termed-out Bill Campbell (one of the three votes for the new CalOptima ordinance). He had been a Supervisor before, left that office to become an elected State Assemblyman, termed out there and went to work for the Orange County District Attorney and was fired in a very public political disagreement with the District Attorney and Public Administrator/Public Guardian, John Williams. Eventually Williams was forced out of office, and his position has been temporarily filled for months now by a qualified person who does not want the job permanently. After being sworn into office in early January, Spitzer came out of the chute with guns of criticism blazing at the Great Park (also known as Irvine’s Great Pork) as well as the homeless population and feeding trough that had been allowed to develop around the Santa Ana/County Civic Center. More fireworks are expected from Spitzer on most any subject one can imagine. If that is not enough, many think he will run for the office of Orange County District Attorney at some time in the not too distant future.

So, that’s a partial look the lay of the land in Orange County government. Is this an organization and culture you would want to work for? If so, there are several high level openings – contact the County Human Resources Department!

About Over But Not Out

A retired Orange County employee, and moderate Republican. The editor seriously does not know OBNO's identity as did not the former editor, but his point of view is obviously interesting and valued.