We learn from the Orange County Register that no fewer than nine aspirants hoping to be appointed as indicted  former Sheriff  Mike Carona’s replacement for the remainder of his term will be interviewed in a marathon all-day session of the board of supervisors from 9 a.m. to 8:40 p.m. on Tuesday, May 27.   

The nine have been shortlisted from a total applicant list of four dozen. Each will be allowed a five-minute introductory statement and then face fifty-five minutes of questions from supervisors. The public will get an hour to make its own comments after the last interview. Although the names will mean little to those outside the area, there’s an impressive spread of experience in the finalist pool:

  • the current acting sheriff and a lieutenant from the Orange County department, as well as a (woman) retired division chief;
  • undersheriffs of the San Bernardino and Salt Lake County sheriffs’ departments;
  • a Los Angeles County sheriff’s commander; and
  • police chiefs of Glendale and Santa Ana, and a deputy chief of Anaheim.

The Register story puts most emphasis on the disagreement among supervisors as how to keep the interviews fair.  It leaves certain questions unanswered.

1. Why the fuss about keeping the candidates who have not yet been interviewed from being in the room to hear their rivals’ responses?  It’s not as if there are “right” answers to be learned, to the advantage of the later interviewees.  It’s not even as if supervisors will be asking the same questions of all candidates.

2. If they were so concerned about this, why did the supervisors announce the interview sequence in advance?  Why not draw straws on the spot?

3. The supervisors had no choice but to conduct the interviews publicly, since the Brown Act does not permit discussion of candidates for or occupants of an elective office in closed session.  But why not do this with any and every governmental chief or senior executive position (city manager, county executive, school superintendent, police chief, etc.)? This level of appointment is the single most important decision local elected officials are likely to make, and they cannot be held accountable for it if the discussion and selection are in a black box. The array of rank and talent showing up to be considered for the sheriff’s job at present gives the lie to the notion that the best men and women for the choicest public jobs will simply not come forward to be considered in a public setting. If they are given no choice, schedule it—and the capable will come.  Those who shrink from the exposure probably have good reasons for doing so, and are best excluded.

4.  If this is to be a one-day grind, why do it on a Tuesday when the working public is at work?

5.  Instead of (or in addition to) the one-hour public comment period at the end of the session at night, why not let members of the public submit questions to be posed by the supervisors?  They could be limited in number, screened for relevance, originality, etc.

6. But most interestingly, notice how transparent this appointment’s process is compared with the one that the courts have said must protect the governor from public awareness when he is mulling applicants to fill out the term of a county supervisor.  For example, when the Los Angeles Times wanted to know just the names and self-submitted background information about those seeking Governor Pete Wilson’s appointment to the seat of a resigned Orange County supervisor after the county’s meltdown into bankruptcy in the 1990s, a two-judge majority of the California Court of Appeal found a greater public interest in secrecy Wilson v. Superior Court (Los Angeles Times), 51 Cal.App.4th 1136 (1996) to protect Wilson’s “deliberative process.”  Observe the same tired and utterly speculative arguments as to why no person of quality would step forward in a public probing of his or her qualifications:

The applications are predecisional documents whose sole purpose is to aid the Governor in selecting gubernatorial appointees, a process which depends upon comparison of the qualifications of the candidates as shown in the applications and confidential, candid discussion of the candidates’ professional competence, political views and private conduct.
    The application form itself solicits highly personal and occasionally embarrassing information regarding the applicant’s background, political beliefs and associations. This includes medical history and financial information otherwise protected by the constitutional right of privacy. An applicant answers candidly with the expectation that his or her responses will remain confidential.
In support of the Governor’s opposition to the Times’s petition, the Governor’s appointments secretary, Julia Justus, stated that both the candidates and those who provide information about them are assured that any information provided will be divulged only to the Governor and his senior staff. This assures that applicants will be forthcoming and enhances the Governor’s ability to attract the most qualified applicants and to make educated and informed choices in selecting his appointees. Were that not the case, the pool of qualified applicants would quickly dwindle, the remaining applicants would not provide candid or truthful responses, and the public would not be assured of the qualified public servants to which it is entitled.

As noted by many, including the dissent in this case, the court was not faced with having to order disclosure of medical and other truly personal information; all that could have been redacted from the records to be released.  Privacy had nothing to do with the decision. There’s a much simpler explanation for Occam’s Razor to pare down to here. 

Appellate judges are appointed by the governor in an entirely secret process.  Most (two out of three in the Wilson appellate panel, and all three in the same–issues/same-result case involving a supervisor vacancy in Butte County, California First Amendment Coalition v. Superior Court (Wilson), 67 Cal.App.4th 159 (1998)) probably identify readily, instinctively and entirely with those who are seeking public office without public involvement or even awareness—even when the public office in question is normally filled after the disclosures involved in public campaigning pitched at a democratic, not executive, decision.