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'L.A.' is an epithet in a race in O.C.

As Sheriff Sandra Hutchens faces her first election campaign, opponents seize on her ties to the neighboring county.

April 11, 2010|By Raja Abdulrahim
  • Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, center, involved in her first election campaign for her office, attends a Rotary Club meeting in Anaheim Hills.
Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, center, involved in her first election… (Christina House / For The…)

After Orange County's sheriff was indicted on corruption charges on 2007, supervisors made a point of looking beyond the county limits to find a replacement who was free of the cronyism and scandal that had tainted the office.

A retired Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department division chief, Sandra Hutchens was lauded by one Orange County supervisor for being "removed from the political machinations in the county" and was seen as a welcome breath of fresh air in a department that had been led for decades by politically connected lawmen.

But now, facing her first election bid, Hutchens is fighting criticism that she's too much of an outsider, a career cop from Los Angeles who just doesn't understand Orange County.

As sheriff, Hutchens shook up her command staff, threatened to rescind concealed weapons permits handed out by former Sheriff Michael S. Carona and struck an independent tone that rubbed some county supervisors the wrong way, at times leaving them out of the loop or having to ask questions after decisions had been made.

Critics called it her L.A. style, a derisive term in Orange County's political sphere, where Los Angeles is seen as being too liberal, a place where headstrong and overly autonomous leaders reign.

Hutchens' opponents in the June election have made political ammunition out of her L.A. roots, hoping to end her tenure.

In deriding Hutchens' proposal to house federal immigration detainees in two county jails, one of her opponents, Anaheim Police Department Deputy Chief Craig Hunter, wrote, "That is how they balance budgets and fight crime in Los Angeles County, from where our current sheriff arrived."

In an interview with www.redcounty.com, a conservative blog, Hunter complained that Hutchens has "a very L.A.-centric law enforcement and political style."

Retired Orange County Sheriff's Lt. Bill Hunt, who ran against Carona four years ago and is seeking the job again, told a small crowd at a recent fundraiser: "We have an appointed sheriff who came down here with Los Angeles values. Is the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department the model we want [for] our Sheriff's Department?"

Hutchens, who will face a November runoff if she doesn't win a majority in June, views the L.A. label as a political tactic, "a convenient sound bite."

"I do not even begin to apologize for coming from L.A. L.A. Sheriff's is a very fine department. . . . It's all about best practices and borrowing ideas from other agencies," she said. "I think it's meant to evoke some kind of negative image, but I certainly reject that."

The sheriff said she and officials from other jurisdictions across the country proposed housing federal inmates to bring in needed revenue during tough economic times. She said she has also asked people to reapply for concealed weapons permits as a good-practices policy and has increased communications with supervisors.

Fred Smoller, a political science professor at Chapman University in Orange, said Hutchens is unlike her predecessor, who was a politician first and a law enforcement officer second.

"Now you have a break from the past and now people aren't so certain," Smoller said. "Everyone wants reform, but no one wants change."

Before Hutchens' appointment, the state's second largest sheriff's department was led for nine years by Carona, who is currently appealing a felony witness-tampering conviction. His predecessor, Brad Gates, was a fixture as the county's top lawman, holding the officer for 24 years.

Supervisor John Moorlach said former Supervisor Chris Norby, now an assemblyman, set the stage by deciding early on to make an issue of Hutchens' missteps.

"It sort of came with 'We're going to go after her,' so you throw the L.A. thing," said Moorlach, a Hutchens supporter. "I just think it's a way to dig at somebody. It's just a pejorative."

Norby says Hutchens proved to be uncooperative and seemed "to be playing a whole game of chicken with the board" concerning the budget, insisting that the department couldn't be cut because it represented public safety.

At a board meeting in February, an assistant sheriff representing the department was grilled about 15 recent promotions in Hutchens' command staff at a time when she was laying off employees to cut $19 million from the budget.

Hutchens met her budgetary goals, with the help of an extra $5 million allocated by the board, through layoffs, resignations and promotions without pay raises.

Supervisor Bill Campbell described it as a "bait and switch," and board Chairwoman Janet Nguyen, who voted for Hutchens' appointment and described her as being "uniquely qualified" for the job, said the fact that the board wasn't notified beforehand was a "power of disregard" on the sheriff's part.

The supervisors voted to freeze all future promotions countywide.

In March, Hutchens released about 300 inmates in one day from the Theo Lacy jail in Orange but didn't inform the city or county supervisors.

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