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O.C. sheriff finalists quizzed

Questions cover a wide range of topics. Decision is due soon.

May 28, 2008|Christian Berthelsen and Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writers

Nine law enforcement veterans competing to become Orange County's next sheriff appeared before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday in an unprecedented public interview session to determine which one should replace the top cop who left office under indictment.

The candidates were allowed an hour each to make a brief statement and then field questions from the five supervisors, with the session stretching into the night.

Supervisors asked a range of questions, from the candidates' philosophy on broad law enforcement policy issues, such as checking immigration status in the jails and possession of marijuana for medical purposes to more obscure issues, such as jail staffing methods and DNA lab management.

Supervisors rebuffed a request by board member Chris Norby to bring the matter to a vote Tuesday night and decided to continue their deliberations Tuesday. It was not clear when a final decision would be made.

Several candidates said the biggest challenge for the department was a lack of strong leadership that had allowed problems to fester and created a lax culture in which poor performance was tolerated. Most said they had detailed plans to fix problems and bring their strengths to bear on improving the department's reputation.

"To restore this beleaguered department to greatness, half measures and timid steps will not be sufficient," said Paul Walters, the Santa Ana police chief. "I believe we must fundamentally change the culture of this department."

For decades, Orange County's sheriff has been elected by voters. But after Sheriff Michael S. Carona stepped down in January to focus on his upcoming federal corruption trial, the board was given the task of picking his successor. A federal grand jury indicted Carona in October on charges that he sold access to his office for tens of thousands of dollars in cash and gifts. His trial is scheduled to begin Aug. 26.

The winning candidate will supervise the second-largest sheriff's department in California, with a budget of more than $700 million and more than 4,000 employees -- about 1,700 of them sworn deputies. The candidate hired by the board will serve the remainder of Carona's term, which runs through 2010, and would then have to run for election to keep the job.

A big question hanging over the day's proceedings was whether acting Sheriff Jack Anderson would get the job permanently -- and if not, what his successor would do with him. Anderson, an assistant sheriff, has been running the department for four months and has won praise for his handling of several difficult issues. But he bears the burden of having been appointed to the position by Carona. A new poll by the deputies union found that nearly 80% of the public want a sheriff who had nothing to do with the prior administration.

Anderson sought to distance himself from his former boss during his interview Tuesday, saying: "I've been under scrutiny for the last 19 weeks. There isn't any stain on me. I was not involved in his illegal activity."

Others danced around the prickly question of whether they would keep Anderson in their command staff if they got the job -- particularly if he planned to run for election as sheriff in 2010.

"I'd need to evaluate the leadership abilities, management abilities and background" of command staff members before making a decision, said Sandra Hutchens, retired Los Angeles County sheriff's division chief, in response to a question about Anderson. "I think everyone deserves a fair evaluation before I go and make any wholesale changes."

In addition to Hutchens, Walters and Anderson, the finalists, chosen in a nationwide search, are former Sheriff's Lt. Bill Hunt; Anaheim Deputy Police Chief Craig Hunter; Los Angeles County Sheriff's Cmdr. Ralph Martin; Glendale Police Chief Randy Adams; Salt Lake (Utah) County Undersheriff Beau Babka; and San Bernardino County Undersheriff Richard Beemer.

Hunt, Walters and Martin each have run unsuccessful campaigns against Carona in the past.

Although most questions dealt with the candidates' approach to law enforcement issues, they occasionally turned pointed. Supervisors asked both Hunt and Anderson why they should be appointed sheriff even though they did not have enough top management experience to meet the county's requirements to serve as undersheriff.

And Babka stumbled when Norby asked him a simple question: How many cities are there in Salt Lake County?

"Ten, 11 . . . no, 17," Babka said. Salt Lake County has 16 cities, according to its website.

A key focus of the questions and answers was how the candidates would go about fixing Orange County jails, which have been plagued by overcrowding and a series of incidents that raised questions about the behavior and culture of jail deputies, most notably the beating death of an inmate in 2006 while a nearby guard watched television and sent cellphone text messages to friends.

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