By day, Nancy M. Padberg is chief of staff for John S. Williams, Orange County's public administrator/public guardian.
And at least once a month she and her boss sit at the same table as trustees of the South Orange County Community College District.
The possibility that one trustee will feel pressured to politically support another because the other is her boss is raising concerns in the district and beyond.
Lewis Long, an English professor at Irvine Valley College and president-elect of the district's teachers union, said faculty members are troubled by the Williams-Padberg relationship.
"I think it's quite a threat to the way the board is supposed to function as a representative of public funds, when one board member who is supposed to be exercising his or her better judgment depends on another board member for a part of her livelihood and is therefore subject to pressure," he said. "One trustee could influence a significant vote on an issue by implicit or explicit pressure."
Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles and co-author of the city's ethics laws, said the relationship raises ethical questions.
"This person is reliant on the boss for a job, and if she votes against him, there's a perception she might not keep her job," he said.
Jim Knox, executive director of California Common Cause, agreed. "I'd say, definitively, I think it's not proper."
Williams was elected to his $112,778-a-year job in November 2002 and quickly named Padberg his top aide. He can dismiss her at will.
Williams' office, with a staff of 70, protects the assets of those who have died with no survivors in the state and protects the elderly and mentally ill who cannot take care of themselves.
Williams, 52, a former deputy marshal, was elected to the college board in 1992. Padberg was elected six years later.
"I don't see a conflict at all," Williams said. "I've never seen it as a problem. It's never come up as an issue."
Padberg also defended her appointment to the $83,183-a-year job. "I can see [why] an outsider who doesn't know us or know our personalities might wonder," she said. "I can also tell you a couple of board members were curious about it once I accepted the job."
Padberg, 66, is a licensed clinical social worker and lawyer who retired from her practice of real estate law last year. "I'm in a position at my stage of life where I don't need to work," she said. "I couldn't work for him [Williams] and keep my job on the college board if I weren't free to do what I need to do" in voting her conscience as a trustee.
Williams said he met Padberg when she joined the board, which governs Saddleback and Irvine Valley colleges. Since then, they have been part of the board's conservative majority, which has been doing battle with faculty and students on many issues, including free speech, class scheduling, and faculty and administration appointments.
They are paid $400 a month for serving as trustees.
Williams said Padberg, because of her background in mental health and the law, was "the perfect choice" as the No. 2 person in his office.
Board members Donald P. Wagner and Thomas A. Fuentes, who along with Padberg and Williams usually make up the board's conservative majority, said they have not perceived a problem with the relationship.
"I don't think you're out in left field to say there is an appearance issue," Wagner said, "but in terms of the actual performance, honest to God, I've seen nothing to see there is a problem."
Trustees David B. Lang and Marcia Milchiker declined to comment.