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Home / Neighborhood / Orange County / OC officials criticize grand jury report on oversight office hiring freeze

OC officials criticize grand jury report on oversight office hiring freeze

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By PAUL ANDERSON

Orange County officials Thursday disputed a grand jury report that a watchdog agency for the law enforcement agencies had its job openings frozen at the request of a supervisor due to a report critical of the sheriff’s use of force policies.

The grand jury report issued Thursday argued that the Office of Independent Review “is experiencing unjustified restrictions from the (board of supervisors) as it has in the past.”

The relatively newly revamped office was launched in 2020 following the jailhouse informant scandal in an attempt to better monitor the county’s sheriff’s department, public defender, district attorney, probation and social services agencies.

In the past, county officials complained the agency just sent them summaries of what had already been well reported by news organizations, so the supervisors wanted a watchdog that would actively investigate issues and report back to the board.

The agency published its first report in August 2021 about sheriff’s department policies and practices regarding use of force.

The grand jury said the department “reacted both publicly and privately to the report’s findings, expressing displeasure with both the content of the report and the use of social media to help publish the findings.”

The grand jury said a “prominent member of the (Board of Supervisors) reacted to the (sheriff’s department’s) displeasure by contacting the Orange County Chief Executive Officer (Frank Kim) and requesting that a hiring freeze be placed upon the OIR. The CEO’s office complied with the supervisor’s request.”

Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do, who was board chairman last year, asked Kim to put a pause on expanding the staff for the agency to explore the concerns raised by Sheriff Don Barnes about the former head of the agency, Sergio Perez, posting about the report on social media and engaging in dialogue with activists, some officials who asked to remain anonymous told City News Service.

Do served on the ad hoc committee overseeing the OIR with now Board Chairman Doug Chaffee.

Chaffee told City News Service that “none of us has that authority” to order any freeze on hiring.

“We did a pause when the executive director (Perez) announced he was leaving” for a new job, Chaffee said.

But, Chaffee added, the two hires that were put on pause were completed.

“We hired them,” Chaffee said. “They’re on board. And an interim director is on board.”

The new interim director, Ben DeMayo, is a former county counsel for Orange County. He is a placeholder while a firm conducts a national search for a new director.

“What was not included in the grand jury’s discussion is when the Office of Independent Review seeks publicity or is viewed as publicity seeking by its stakeholders it undermines the credibility of the function and corrodes the relationship with the law-enforcement agencies that it seeks to work with,” Do said.

Supervisor Katrina Foley told City News Service “I believe in the Office of Independent Review as a necessary department for the county of Orange, and we are in the process of hiring a new director and that process will play itself out and the county has a policy whenever new directors are hired that we do an administrative audit of the department so the new director who comes in doesn’t have any leftover baggage if any that they are held responsible for. I suspect we will do that and enhance the effectiveness and management of the Office of Independent Review. Frankly, I’d like to put the past behind us and just move forward.”

Carrie Braun, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Department, said the grand jury report “does not accurately reflect the department’s transparent relationship with the OIR or the discussions that occurred after the use of force report was published.”

“No ‘lobbying’ occurred,” Braun said. “The sheriff discussed with the Board of Supervisors concerns with inaccuracies in the report and the department’s response to issues raised in the report. Any decision to freeze positions is a policy decision by the board, and was not at the request of the sheriff.

“The department has continued to provide information and respond to requests from the OIR. Since 2020, we have responded to more than 400 requests for information. Executive staff have maintained consistent communication with the OIR and received input on our internal incident reviews, policies and procedures before and through the OIR staffing transitions. We are committed to having a cooperative relationship between the department and the OIR as it is in the best interests of the community we serve.”

The grand jury argued in its report that the “unwarranted hiring freeze appeared to undermine the credibility of the OIR and challenge its independence. This interference with the OIR through budgetary means repeats a pattern that began with its first iteration dating back over a decade. The decision to place any restrictions on any department’s budget, hiring, or operations should not be under the control of a single supervisor.”

The grand jurors speculated that Perez resigned “in part from the prolonged and untimely hiring freeze,” which left the agency with only one investigators manager. Perez left the post to take a job in Los Angeles, where he lives, one official said. The investigations manager resigned last month.

“Without a permanent executive director and sufficient staffing, the OIR is restricted in its ability to function as intended,” the grand jury reported. “The lack of sufficient staffing will create more roadblocks for the OIR in its ability to effectively provide input and oversight of the public agencies under its purview.”

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