By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
Pellman got the job in 1998 and immediately moved to bring the supervisors into his decision-making process. But the openness invited criticism, and over his six-year tenure Pellman angered board members who believed he was improperly managing a wealth of contracts with outside law firms. Under pressure from open-government advocates, the board and Pellman hired an outside lawyer for advice on whether to support new laws to guarantee openness. No, said the lawyer. The rub: He was J. Kenneth Brown, lead partner in the firm of Brown, Wilson & Canzoneri, which routinely is referred legal work from the county counsel (and which lost a key Brown Act case for the county).
The appearance of inside dealing came up again when Pellman, on his retirement, joined Brown’s firm. It was not the end of the controversy. In winnowing résumés for Pellman’s successor, the supervisors — who last time out each picked a key staffer to narrow the field — this time each picked a trusted lawyer from outside the county system. Knabe picked Brown. The selections remained secret, until a reporter from the Daily Journalfound out.
When the paper reported that Brown is helping to pick a lawyer who will, in turn, determine how much work Brown’s firm will get in the future, open-government activists were furious.
The question angered Knabe, who responded that he picked Brown for his integrity and experience. After all, the other picks were insiders as well. Molina called on attorney and mayoral candidate Bob Hertzberg, whose brother has been a member of the supervisor’s staff for years. Antonovich selected his campaign treasurer, former state Insurance Commissioner Richards D. Barger, whose daughter is the supervisor’s chief of staff. Yaroslavsky chose former City Administrative Officer Keith Comrie, and Burke picked retired judge Thomas Thompson. But unlike Brown, none of them vie for county contracts.
Actually, an earlier panel of insiders went through the 55 qualifying résumés and whittled them down to eight. That committee’s existence, and the members’ names, weren’t exactly secret. But they weren’t exactly publicized, either. They included Ann Ravel, the Santa Clara county counsel; Kurt Peterson, managing partner at the firm of Reed Smith; Los Angeles Unified School District counsel Kevin Reed; and two high-ranking Los Angeles County officials, Chief Administrative Officer David Janssen and personnel chief Mike Henry.
Two candidates then dropped out, so all Brown and company really did was eliminate one résumé and forward the remaining five to the Board of Supervisors.
The pool of finalists is a familiar one. Fortner, Main and Yang have been through the process before, having lost to Pellman the last time. Carnevale is well known to the supervisors from his role as counsel to the MTA. Ching would be virtually new to the public sector, although he began his career as a county prosecutor in Northern California.
At least one supervisor is said to be insisting that the final selection be unanimous. That will be tough. Each board member will want a county counsel who will see issues in his or her own way, and as the county-seal dispute illustrated, it is impossible to tell when a legal matter will become political, or how strongly the elected officials will feel about it. And whether they will hold the lawyers responsible.
“You’re often there just to take the heat,” Ravel of Santa Clara County said. “Some lawyers understand that, and learn not to take it personally.”