UNDER FIRE : County’s Mild-Mannered Clerk-Recorder, Stung by Official Criticism, Is Struggling to Save a 29-Year Career in Public Service
For most of the last six years, Lee A. Branch has been the consummate civil servant, toiling quietly in his dual role as clerk of the Orange County Superior Court and county recorder of deeds. But recently, he has found himself in the uncomfortable position of an embattled politician, thrust into the public spotlight and struggling to retain credibility amid a torrent of criticism.
Over the last 18 months, he has been threatened with contempt of court 13 times for failing to forward criminal files to the state appellate court on time. At one point, he was eight days behind in recording property deeds, and he has been sued for failing to record a lien in time.
But the biggest blow came from a County Administrative Office management audit last March. The audit report cited 157 changes that Branch should make in the way he runs his office, and it faulted him for--among other things--resisting change and maintaining an adversary relationship with his staff.
The criticisms have wounded him deeply, he said.
“I’m not like those other politicians,” he said. “That’s not me. This job has been my life. All this (criticism) is very difficult to take. It doesn’t roll off, like it does on others. I like my job, and I want to stay here.”
The tall, mustachioed, pipe-smoking Branch, 48, does not view his position as simply a four-year elective office. He has been with the county 29 years--almost since he graduated from Santa Ana High School--and rose through the ranks to become head of the clerk-recorder office in 1978.
He is a quiet, almost lugubrious man who seems to move about his sprawling offices at the Santa Ana civic center complex almost unnoticed.
“Branch doesn’t make waves. He’s always cooperative, always constructive and always tries to do his best,” said Gary Granville, an aide to Orange County Supervisor Ralph Clark. Clark and some other members of the county Board of Supervisors--which must approve Branch’s budget--would not talk about Branch.
Getting along with the supervisors, though, has meant that Branch has not fought hard for his 290 employees or the things his office needs, said Dan Miller, an aide to Supervisor Roger Stanton. “He has to rethink his attitude,” Miller said, to win the money necessary to carry out the changes recommended by the CAO audit.
Superior Court judges also were reluctant to talk about the clerk-recorder. Judge Richard J. Beacom, who, as presiding judge during 1983 and 1984, worked closely with Branch, would say only that the judges were “in general agreement with the audit recommendations.”
The judges, however, responded to the audit in April with a proposal that they take over control of the courtroom clerks, court clerk computer operations and court scheduling functions--together more than 100 clerk employees. The judges said a take-over could be accomplished by court order, but they instead asked that a task force be set up to study the idea.
But a County Counsel legal opinion held that the court did not have the authority to order such a take-over, and Branch has called for meetings to iron out problems before a task force is named.
Before Branch was appointed and, later, won a run-off election for clerk-recorder in 1978, the clerk and the recorder were separate offices headed by elected officials. Although the positions were combined for convenience and efficiency, they have remained separate operations in different county buildings.
The clerk is responsible for filing and maintaining civil and criminal documents and trial exhibits for the Superior Court. On any day, about 6,000 case files are in the courtrooms or in transit.
The recorder files and maintains nearly 500,000 documents a year for all real estate in Orange County, and for personal property sold under financing agreements. The documents include deeds, mortgages and liens on property.
The combined office of clerk-recorder will collect about $14.5 million in revenues in the fiscal year ending this month, and it will cost about $8.5 million to operate the office.
Branch is a Republican, but he said he believes he should not get involved too much in partisan politics because he has to get along with members of both major political parties.
Branch said he will “most definitely” run for another four-year term next year. The only other announced candidate so far is one of his employees, Marshall Norris, who lost to Branch in the 1978 run-off and ran unsuccessfully against Sheriff-Coroner Brad Gates as in 1982.
Branch chuckled at the suggestion that the CAO audit--which some county officials termed the harshest, yet most constructive management study they have seen--might hurt his reelection effort.
The auditors reported a “serious lack of communication” between staff and top management, primarily because the clerk-recorder office had no routine management systems, “such as staff meetings, operational procedures or written information.”
‘Distant, Minimal’ Presence
As county clerk, Branch’s presence was “perceived by staff as distant and minimal, with his involvement and interest limited primarily to resisting suggested changes and refusing requests for resources,” the audit report said. The audit team “did not find top management receptive to suggestions for improvements,” the report went on.
The audit also found “recurrent evidence of a lack of sensitivity to security issues,” such as the maintenance of court exhibits, files and cash, because Branch’s staff believed it was “too busy with mandated functions to establish and maintain procedures which appear to be standard precautions in all county departments.”
As recorder, Branch’s goals and objectives were “not clearly documented or articulated to staff,” a situation aggravated by the “absence of desk procedures, which are necessary to efficiently accomplish key recording tasks,” the audit report said.
In addition, the audit team found that morale among deputy recorders was low, and observed rude behavior toward members of the public, both of which “appear to be linked to a generally negative tone, which is promoted by management.” The tone encourages an adversary role with the public, a role that is “often echoed in relationships between staff and supervisors, further contributing to low staff morale.”
The audit report suggested 157 specific changes, from reorganizing the clerk-recorder’s office into five divisions to ordering the proper toner for the photocopier.
Asked for Help Before Audit
Branch said he had asked the County Administrative Office for help a year ago--long before the Board of Supervisors ordered the audit--in restructuring his office to streamline its functions. In agreeing with nearly all the audit’s recommendations, he said he had been asking the supervisors in recent years for many of the same things the audit recommended.
But Branch was upset over the charge that he had resisted changes and over references to management’s negative tone and low staff morale.
“That criticism has distressed me because I’ve always had an open-door policy,” he said. “Obviously, some things were going on that I wasn’t aware of. We’ll change. It’s a big office, a big operation, and that’s why we were asking for a restructuring.”
As a result, Branch said, he is instituting regular meetings at all levels to learn more directly what his employees want and need, and to explain his own actions better. He said he wants to assure employees that they should feel free to talk with him.
Some county officials criticize Branch as being aloof--at times even arrogant--and as demonstrating a lack of political savvy. Others say he simply suffers from a penchant for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.
Last year, for example, Branch was lobbying the Board of Supervisors for a salary increase for himself and his staff. According to some officials, Branch spoiled his own effort by criticizing the salary of the board’s new clerk.
“It had nothing to do with salary,” Branch recalled. “It had to do with the way the board recruited her at one pay level and then, after selecting her, moved her to a higher pay level. When I recruit at one pay level, I’m not able to move my people to a higher level.”
Judges Were Offended
Another time, in a meeting with three judges, Branch greeted a woman judge with “Hi, Butch,” a term she found offensive. Branch also repeatedly called a second judge by his first name.
“It was nothing personal,” he said. “I thought I knew her well. I thought it was an informal meeting, but they were in a different mood. I thought there were no airs between elected officials.”
At the third judge’s urging, he said, he apologized in writing to the other two.
Delays in filing court and property documents have been a major cause of criticism of Branch’s operation. Delay in recording a lien led to a lawsuit last January against Branch, which is still pending. Details Inc. of Anaheim claims in the suit that failure to record its lien on time made it lose its right to get $45,921 from Anaheim-based Omnimedical.
Details Inc., which had not been paid for computer circuit boards it had made and sold to Omnimedical, won a court order on Nov. 17, 1983, giving it until Jan. 26, 1984, to record its lien against Omnimedical. Details Inc. mailed the document with proper fees and instructions for filing, according to the pending suit.
The lien, however, was not recorded until Feb. 14, 1984. By then, the suit claims, Omnimedical had gone into bankruptcy, nullifying the lien.
Branch said he did not recall the incident and did not want to comment on pending litigation.
Of filing delays in general he said, “The problems were addressed, they were handled, they were resolved. It’s dead news.”
Despite the harsh criticism of the CAO auditors, Branch acknowledged that the report has helped him in his relationship with his staff.
“I’m probably sometimes difficult to get to know,” he said. “I do tend to go through the office and not take enough time to talk.”
Praised for Legislative Work
As a member of the state County Clerks Assn. and the state County Recorders Assn., Branch has worked for legislative changes that the CAO audit report lauded as bringing “revised fees and increased county revenue.” His legislative work for the two associations also includes proposals to protect the public from such things as property fraud and to ease the public’s need to file more documents.
Born in Los Angeles, Branch moved with his family to Orange County in 1948. Shortly after high school, in 1956, the county hired him at entry level as a deputy recorder.
He became a microfilm technician, supervisor of the reproduction section, a division head and, for more than six years, was assistant to Recorder Wylie Carlyle, a highly influential politician in the county. When the office was merged with the clerk’s office in 1978, Carlyle, who was retiring, helped Branch win interim appointment as clerk-recorder.
Carlyle then chaired Branch’s 1978 campaign committee with the slogan, “Lee Branch is no politician. He’s just a very good county recorder.”
Meantime, Branch said, he had attended night classes and taken college management courses to help him handle the duties that went with each promotion.
Branch married his high school sweetheart, Fay. They have a son, David, 26, and a daughter, Deanna, 21.