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The decision to merge the position with the DA’s office is more a ‘sideshow’ than ‘true solution’

Evan Chaffee
Evan Chaffee

By Evan Chaffee, San Juan Capistrano Planning Commissioner

While most midterm elections are generally bland events with minimal voter participation, it appears the 2014 election cycle is starting to get spicy. Due to term limits, south Orange County will be seeing a turnover in several significant state and county offices, including the 73rd Assembly seat, 38th Senate District and the 5th District Board of Supervisors seat. Considering the recent news of 73rd Assembly candidate Jesse Petrilla’s 2001 felony assault with a firearm conviction and Rep. John Campbell’s retirement from Congress, the election season is alive with notable headlines.

To add to the list of interesting election situations is the case of the Orange County Public Administrator, formerly an elected seat that had been vacant since 2012, when its occupant, John Williams, resigned. This was, in part, due to scathing mismanagement charges detailed in two 2009 Grand Jury reports.

In a recent supervisor’s agenda, county staff defined the role of Public Administrator as one that “protects the assets and affairs of deceased residents who, at the time of their death, leave no heirs, no will, no named executor or an executor who is ineligible and whose estates have no person willing to serve as an executor or administrator for whatever reason.”

After Mr. William’s resignation, the Board of Supervisors voted to cut the position’s full-time, six-figure salary to a part-time position, earning $30,000 annually, as a step to dissuade potential corruption. Additionally, the supervisors opted to include ballot Measure A in the 2012 general election to turn the seat into an appointed position rather than an elected office every four years. Rejecting the measure, Orange County residents overwhelmingly voted to keep the Office of Public Administrator on the ballot with 60 percent of the vote.

Less than two years later, after several candidates filed to run for the vacant seat in 2014, the Board of Supervisors voted at their Jan. 28 meeting to merge the Public Administrator office with the District Attorney’s office. As a subsidiary of the DA’s office, there will be little or no cost savings for taxpayers, as the Public Administrator’s budget will be absorbed by the DA. There will be less transparency for voters with the position’s accessibility and visibility reduced in the process. While the DA’s office is qualified to manage these cases, it would seem that their efforts should remain devoted to their mission statement; enhancing public safety and welfare through the enforcement of criminal and civil laws.

Regardless of the Public Administrator office’s tarnished reputation, merging the office with the DA seems to be more of a sideshow than a true solution. The supervisors made some effort to fix the problem in 2012. Measure A appropriately gauged voter opinion that the electorate retain the right to choose their public administrator. The requirement that appears to be missing is a professional standard to run for and hold the office of Public Administrator.

For example, in order to stand for Orange County Treasurer-Tax Collector candidates must be certified public accountants, and the DA must be a licensed attorney.

Considering that the role of Public Administrator relies heavily on probate law, it would have been more appropriate if the board had established a professional standard requiring membership in the California bar to be eligible to hold this office. Prior to the action of the board of supervisors, two qualified licensed attorneys filed to run for the office. Nevertheless, three of the five members of the board voted to merge the Public Administrator office into the DA’s office, effectively preventing these candidates from running and ignoring the message of Measure A.

Evan Chaffee is a lifelong resident of San Juan Capistrano and is currently serving his first term on the city’s Planning Commission. He serves as campaign manager for Orange County Supervisor candidate Lisa Bartlett. Chaffee has worked in politics and at various levels of government over the last six years. He is a graduate of the University of California, San Diego with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science.

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