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Treasurer’s woes are not ours, board seems to say

They came not to bury Orange County Treasurer Chriss Street two weeks ago, but to praise him.

Faced with County Supervisor John Moorlach’s motion to strip Street of his investment authority, a succession of managers in Street’s office, not to mention the auditor and an outside analyst, said the county’s investment portfolio was purring along and that rebuking Street might prove counterproductive.

The other four supervisors apparently agreed, and the motion died without a second, replaced by one to basically let things drift for another month or so.

So what was the big deal, anyway?

Only that Street, who oversees the county’s multibillion-dollar investment portfolio, is the subject of inquiries by federal prosecutors, the Orange County district attorney and the U.S. Labor Department.

That was enough to give me the idea that Street might do everyone a favor by temporarily stepping down until things were resolved. I invoked “public perception” and suggested that the county that gave the U.S. its largest municipal bankruptcy ever in 1994 might want to be seen as squeaky-clean.

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And I went to the board meeting figuring the members would express similar grave concern over Street’s problems.

Far from it.

I almost got the feeling, sitting in the chambers that day, that the four other supervisors were going to take Street out for drinks afterward.

I’d put the matter on a shelf until Wednesday, when Nick Berardino, head of the county’s employees union, said it had commissioned a poll by a national firm that suggested -- what do you know? -- Orange County residents are concerned too.

The Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research firm first told the 512 registered voters who were polled of the investigations in general terms and asked if they had a more or less favorable impression of Street. Not surprisingly, 72% said they had a less favorable one. In what constitutes comic relief, 5% said they had a stronger impression of him, with the rest apparently undecided.

A follow-up question asked what should be done about it, and 58% favored taking away some of Street’s responsibilities. Respondents then were asked their opinion of the board for putting off action for at least a month, and 49% said they had a less favorable impression.

I’m not hanging my hat on the poll, other than it being a reflection of Berardino remaining hot for Street’s head while, for the most part, few others in county government seem to care.

I asked Berardino, who spoke in favor of Moorlach’s motion two weeks ago, why he thinks that is.

“It’s an interesting question,” Berardino said Wednesday, then paused for several seconds. “I just don’t get it. I have to answer, I just don’t get it. If I was a member of the board, after what happened in 1994, I’d be moving at lightning speed to get his hand off that pool. I just don’t get it.”

The board made it clear that one man’s blues -- even the treasurer’s -- can’t sink the fund. Procedures put in place after the bankruptcy virtually guarantee that one man can’t bring down the county, according to auditor David Sundstrom and others.

I asked Berardino why that doesn’t sway him. “In November 1994,” he said, “I was told not to worry about a county bankruptcy, because it was only a problem on paper. Of course, on Dec. 6, it was a different story.”

Berardino shares Moorlach’s concern that Street’s problems surely must be distracting enough to warrant his stepping down. Street assured the board two weeks ago that he wasn’t distracted a bit. In convincing fashion, to my ears, he acknowledged making mistakes and said he needed to improve on how he handled his job.

In some respects, it smacked of a refreshing dose of humility and contrition.

Obviously, it impressed the four board members -- although Supervisor Bill Campbell alluded to Moorlach’s concern and said, “I, too, worry about another shoe dropping.”

That line lay there until the end of the debate when board Chairman Chris Norby said, “Chriss, I guess you better hang on to your shoes.”

Waiting for a ripple of laughter in the chamber that didn’t come, Norby quickly added: “A little levity.”

I thought it was funny and still do.

And that’s how the board majority seems to be rating the Street matter: a little levity and even less urgency.

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Dana Parsons’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons


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