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Next O.C. sheriff to be outsider

A retired L.A. County sheriff's official or Santa Ana's chief will succeed Carona.

June 04, 2008|David Reyes and Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writers

The final connections to former Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona's troubled administration were severed Tuesday when county supervisors agreed to go outside the department for a new leader.

County supervisors chose as finalists Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters and retired Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Division Chief Sandra Hutchens to rebuild a department damaged by Carona's indictment and a series of other scandals that tarnished his nine-year administration.

In doing so, they jettisoned the acting sheriff, Jack Anderson, a member of Carona's command staff who was elevated to run the department by Carona as he resigned.

The vote underscored a prevailing opinion that sweeping cultural change was needed within the state's second-largest sheriff's department, eliminating the only insiders lobbying heavily for the job: Anderson, who has served as acting sheriff for five months; and former Lt. Bill Hunt, the favorite of the deputies union, who finished second to Carona in the 2006 election.

"The only two department choices are the acting sheriff, who has done a good job, and also Bill Hunt. And they didn't garner much support," said Mario Mainero, chief of staff for Supervisor John Moorlach. "So I think both of these choices suggest" that the board wants a change.

Hutchens and Walters, who each received four votes, said they were honored by the outcome and hoped to make the final cut.

Anderson, who mustered only one vote from the board, said he believed his ties to Carona hurt his chances, but that he was "not upset by it." He did not rule out running for sheriff in 2010. In the meantime, he said, he would be ready and willing to assist whomever lands the job "any way I can."

A final decision is expected by June 17, depending on when background checks are completed. The winning candidate will inherit a budget of more than $700 million, more than 4,000 employees and the task of resurrecting a department decimated by allegations of corruption, cronyism, mismanagement and a series of embarrassments that has sunk morale among the troops.

A key task will be fixing an Orange County jail system that has been plagued by overcrowding and undermined by a series of incidents that have exposed a disturbing culture among some jail deputies.

A grand jury report revealed that in 2006 a guard watched "Cops" and sent cellphone text messages to friends as an inmate was beaten to death by other prisoners.

The process of picking a new sheriff was set into motion in January when Carona resigned to face charges that he misused his office to enrich himself and others in a conspiracy that included his wife, Deborah, and a former mistress, Debra Hoffman. All three have pleaded not guilty. A trial is set for August.

For decades, Orange County's sheriff has been elected by voters. But after Carona stepped down with more than two years left in his term, the job of finding a successor fell to county supervisors. A recruiting firm drew up a list of 40 qualified candidates from across the nation. The field was narrowed to nine and all were questioned during a public job-interview last week.

Walters, who ran a close race against Carona in 1998, maintained Tuesday that he had the experience to execute his sweeping transition plan, which is aimed at changing the culture of the department and restoring integrity to the leadership.

"We're ready to go, if that's the decision they make," Walters said. "I'm just honored to make it this far. And I look forward to the board's final decision so the department can start the healing process."

Hutchens, a Dana Point resident and the only woman to interview for the job, said she was equally qualified to take the reigns. She downplayed the role her gender might play in any decision.

"Nobody wants to get picked because they're a woman. I want to get picked because of my qualifications," she said. "I think they want a change here. I think I can provide that change and serve the men and women of the department who have not had leadership in a long time. To me, that's the key."

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca endorsed his former colleague. "I don't think the issue is that she's an outsider; it's that she has vast experience in solving problems," Baca said. "And that's really what's needed in Orange County."

Walters said he probably would find a place for Anderson in the command staff. Hutchens said Anderson would be subject to the same evaluation other commanders would face before she could make a decision.

Anderson has received praise for his performance as Carona's temporary fill-in. He proposed a monumental change in the jails, calling for deputies to be replaced by lower-paid, non-sworn correctional officers -- a step that he said could save the county millions each year. And he also responded quickly to the grand jury investigation into the Theo Lacy jail inmate beating death, suspending several deputies and launching what he called the largest internal affairs investigation in department history.

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