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New in the O.C.

With its transparent, thorough search for a sheriff, the county has moved past the Carona years.

June 10, 2008

After Sheriff Michael S. Carona embarrassed Orange County with his furtive maneuverings -- showering extraordinary favors on supporters to the point of hiring unqualified people for top positions, fighting off any outside review that would reveal deputies' callousness and dereliction at the county jail -- the Board of Supervisors has taken all the right steps to restore the reputation of the office.

As a result of a nationwide search, conducted with a maximum of transparency, the supervisors are expected to choose today between what appear to be two fine candidates to lead the Sheriff's Department out of an era of scandal and incompetence. The board was especially smart to pick outside candidates, unconnected to either Carona's buddies or his enemies. More than anything, the office needs a strong, impartial hand to transform it without engaging in the petty revenge and cozy relationships that debased it in recent years.

Carona's trial on felony charges that he misused his office to enrich himself and his cronies can go forward as a separate tragicomedy -- with a cast that includes the wife and the former mistress, the friends who turned enemy, and Carona's martial arts instructor, who went ballistic on a golf course, pulling out his reserve deputy badge and gun in a dispute about a wayward ball -- without continuing to drag the county into his humiliations.

The supervisors could have done the easy thing to replace Carona, who retired in January -- not to spare the county, mind you, but to help himself to free legal aid -- by appointing his handpicked successor, Assistant Sheriff Jack Anderson. Anderson has led the department ably in the interim, but there's no getting around old alliances and rifts. Instead, the board wisely recruited nationally, attracting nearly 50 applicants.

Supervisors invited county residents to submit questions for the candidates, as well as the qualities they thought were most important. (Any surprise that "integrity" was a top contender?) And when the field was winnowed to nine semifinalists, the public was invited to a marathon interview session with them.

From that open process emerged the two finalists, Sandra Hutchens, a retired L.A. County Sheriff's Department division chief, and Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters. Both have excellent reputations and would bring an outsider's fresh eye to the position. With the hiring job well done, supervisors can now feel confident that they are putting in place a strong law-enforcement leader, rather than a self-interested politician.

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