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Furor grows over O.C. sheriff's effort to revoke concealed-weapons permits

Sandra Hutchens again explains her stance on the issue at a supervisors' meeting, where opponents call on the board to take a no-confidence vote.

February 11, 2009|Tami Abdollah

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens appeared one more time Tuesday before an overflowing crowd at a Board of Supervisors meeting to explain her stance on concealed-weapons permits and why she will revoke some of the ones issued under her predecessor.

But her explanation did not satisfy the permit advocates -- including representatives of the National Rifle Assn. -- nor the supervisors. Many of the speakers called for the board to take a no-confidence vote on her management and for Hutchens to resign.

The dispute stems from permits issued by former Sheriff Michael S. Carona, convicted last month of felony witness tampering. As part of the case against him, the government alleged that Carona gave the permits to friends and campaign supporters, regardless of whether they proved they needed to carry a concealed weapon.

It was Hutchens' third appearance before the board on the issue, which has devolved to include allegations of spying and intimidation, mocking text messages sent among sheriff's officials and a battle over ownership of the board's security recordings.

While at previous meetings, Hutchens -- who was criticized for a heavy-handed sheriff's presence at a meeting last month -- appeared in dress uniform; this time she and others in her staff wore civilian clothing.

Hutchens renewed her pledge to enforce the law regarding concealed weapons, despite the opposition of more than 100 people in the audience.

"The fact is, there is a law in California prohibiting a concealed weapon, and I cannot change that," she told the board. "I believe I have taken a common-sense approach to good cause, that you must demonstrate a greater risk than the rest of the general population."

The department sent 423 people -- out of 999 permit holders -- "intent to revoke" notices in October and gave them the chance to prove their need to carry a concealed weapon. If an explanation is deemed invalid, then the permit will be revoked. No date has been set for that action.

Those concerned that their reasons might be deemed invalid can choose to have their permit expire early instead of seeking a renewal, Hutchens said, which would not taint their Department of Justice record. She said she worked with the California Department of Justice to allow that alternative because of concerns raised by people at a previous meeting.

But Supervisors Chris Norby and Janet Nguyen said that such a choice is essentially coercion.

"Let's be honest to the people," Nguyen told Hutchens after roughly four hours of public comment Tuesday. "There's nothing voluntary about this process."

Many of the speakers were people passionately against the sheriff's policy who demanded the board ask for her resignation.

"We are now being governed by the whims of those in power," said Richard Gilbert of Buena Park. "That's tyranny, not democracy."

Steve Sheldon of Rancho Santa Margarita said Hutchens' decisions have "shown she is not right for Orange County."

"Enough is enough," Sheldon told the board. "It's time for this board to pass a resolution calling for no confidence or the resignation of the sheriff."

The supervisors individually weighed in on the discussion, and each disagreed with Hutchens' permit policy while acknowledging that the board had no actual jurisdiction over it.

But, added Chairwoman Patricia Bates: "I will continue to speak out against what I believe is a restrictive policy . . . and continue to respect the sheriff's right to do what she believes are her responsibilities to enforce the law."

The roots of the concealed-weapon debate go back to July, when Hutchens, then newly appointed, decided to review and tighten the department's policy on concealed weapons given out under Carona. The first public meeting on the issue drew hundreds of opponents and lasted eight hours.

A public-records request by the concealed-weapons advocacy group Ordinary California Citizens Concerned with Safety last week revealed messages sent among members of the sheriff's command staff during the meeting that were derisive of public speakers and of the board.

"I do apologize," Hutchens told the board Tuesday. "Those messages were unprofessional and disrespectful, and they should not have taken place."

An earlier public-records act filed by the weapons advocacy group -- this one seeking the security recording of a Jan. 13 supervisors meeting -- revealed that the investigator operating the camera had zoomed in on Norby's notes for a minute and Nguyen's mobile device's text messages for 30 seconds.

Hutchens launched an internal investigation. A battle ensued over the rights to the security recordings. On Tuesday, Hutchens offered the supervisors a copy of the tapes as long as the audience is blacked out to protect the identities of undercover officers.

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tami.abdollah@latimes.com

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