While the body count of high-ranking officials climbs during Orange County's bankruptcy, Sheriff Brad Gates has emerged as a major force in county government, wielding significant influence with the Board of Supervisors and moving some of his staff to work in key positions.
In the past few weeks, former Assistant Sheriff Walter Fath has come out of retirement to work closely with Tom Uram, the county's acting chief administrative officer. One of Gates' top lieutenants has been assigned to take over the county's public relations operation. Clerks and administrators from the Sheriff's Department have been sent over to the treasurer-tax collector's office, where 17 employees were suspended last week.
Gates has also exercised substantial power, along with Uram and Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi, on a special operations committee set up in December by the Board of Supervisors to recommend millions of dollars in cuts for county departments. The panel has been dubbed "the Troika."
More recently, Gates has counseled supervisors about the selection of an interim chief executive officer who would lead the county out of the largest municipal bankruptcy in United States history. And some people in county government speculate that Gates is jockeying for the position himself, perhaps to protect his own turf.
"Brad has assumed additional power and authority almost by default," Supervisor William G. Steiner said Thursday. "We have a legitimate emergency, and he has been the right person at the right time."
Some county department heads are worried about Gates and his growing influence, Steiner said. "I think they had to swallow hard with the $40 million in cuts. Over the long run, county department heads have expressed concerns to me that they would be at a disadvantage if the sheriff were calling the shots."
Gates said he does not want the chief executive's job and that his growing presence is not motivated by selfish interests to grab more authority.
"I have no interest in that job," Gates said. "I don't know how anybody can raise that question based on what I have done. I have no interest in power. My only interest here is to help this county come out of a problem that none of us ever dreamed would happen. When it's over, I'll go back to being sheriff and doing my job."
In the past two months, Gates has probably spent more time in high-level meetings with county leaders at the Hall of Administration than at any other period in his 20-year career.
When he is not conferring with board members, he is in and out of meetings with Uram, county bankruptcy attorney Bruce Bennett, former state Treasurer Thomas Hayes, financial advisers from Salomon Bros. and many others orchestrating the county's financial recovery.
With his tall, lanky frame and assertive speaking voice, "Brad's presence is certainly recognized," said Supervisor Marian Bergeson, who predicts that the sheriff's role will change when the board hires a new chief executive officer in the days ahead.
Some of those involved in the county's recovery plan say Gates has been instrumental in getting county department heads to accept tough budget reductions.
"I understand the dual perception about the role of Brad Gates. He is strong, powerful and controversial," Supervisor Roger R. Stanton said. "There was a leadership vacuum and it needed to be filled."
After the county made its first round of budget cuts, Gates was accused of unfairly recommending major reductions for many departments while his own agency took just a 1% cut.
"Why can't there be cuts in the Sheriff's Department?" asked Connie Haddad, president of the League of Women Voters of Orange County. Gates and the management council are making "very crucial decisions without much input" from the public or other government officials, Haddad said.
Gates says supervisors want public safety preserved, but some high-ranking law enforcement sources around the county say the Sheriff's Department could easily reduce spending while maintaining a good level of service.
Nationally and locally, law enforcement agencies have saved money by using civilians for various operations such as jails, transportation units and certain administrative posts.
Gates, however, has resisted attempts to replace sworn deputies with civilians.
And Gates, who earns $111,000 a year, and other high-ranking department personnel enjoy perquisites that include county cars.
"When people talk about me having a big department, the answer is yes," Gates said. "When people ask, am I fat, do I have a lot money that I can cut out here, the answer is no."
Gates said that even though his budget is about $180 million, only $19 million comes from the county's general fund. The rest is from the state or from contracts with local cities.
Nonetheless, he believes the crisis will force him to look for ways to save money. "Like every department head we're going to look at our shop as thoroughly and as specifically as we can to make reductions where we can," he said.
From the Harbor Patrol office at the Dana Point marina to the Forensic Science Services Annex in Santa Ana, Gates presides over a vast law enforcement bureaucracy. He commands the coroner's office, the county jails, security at John Wayne Airport, the sheriff's academy, the county crime lab, a regional drug task force, and law enforcement services in nine cities as well as the county's unincorporated area.
"I have some pretty deep experiences in handling crisis," he said. "Certainly this is an unusual one that I've never been involved with, but the process in handling a crisis is the same no matter what the issue is."
The approach is simple. "When you're in a situation where you have had a riot or a fire or a flood and you got people injured all over the place," Gates said Thursday, "you run by the person with a broken leg to get to the person who is bleeding to death."
Gates acknowledged that some of his staff have been used to help out during the county's bankruptcy, but he says he had little if anything to do with assigning them. Other county leaders asked for the help, he said. "I think we're all stepping up to the line to do our part."
Shortly after the county filed for bankruptcy Dec. 6, supervisors formed the three-member Management Council to advise the board on budget cuts.
"They asked me to be a part of this group and I readily agreed to it because my heart is in it," Gates said.
Gates said he has worked closely with Capizzi and Uram to help the county. "I'm one of three people," he said. "It's not Brad Gates' show."
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