Due to the enormous backlash generated by Sheriff Sandra Hutchens illegal actions among law abiding OC citizens CCW permit holders and gun rights activists, hundreds and hundreds of people are expected to attend the upcoming meeting taking place on February 10th.
But what exactly the Sheriff did to generate this kind of backlash? We are talking about Sheriff Hutchens deputies singling out and bullying people for simply wearing a button with the letters CCW on it; intimidating and pat down searching of peaceful citizens attending a public meeting; use of undercover deputies; mocking and ridiculing citizens attending in email and Blackberry messages; using surveillance cameras to spy on the Board of Supervisors members who oppose her anti-Second Amendment policies.
Here is how things are now, just three days before one of the most anticipated meetings of the Orange County Board of Supervisors ever:
Text messages, surveillance tapes widen rift between sheriff, supervisors
Battle between Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and county supervisors could soon end up in court.
By TONY SAAVEDRA and NORBERTO SANTANA Jr.
The Orange County Register Friday, February 6, 2009
Eight months into office, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens is locked in a bitter power struggle with the same Board of Supervisors that appointed her.
And the two sides could soon end up in court.
What started as a debate over Hutchens' plan to reduce concealed weapons permits has morphed into a multi-faceted fight with supervisors, who accuse her department of spying, bullying and misusing public property.
Twice in recent weeks, Hutchens has publicly apologized to board members. Once, after a deputy used a surveillance camera to zoom on supervisors' notepads during a hearing, and again after command staff used its department BlackBerrys to exchange text messages ridiculing supervisors and critics of her proposal to reduce the number of concealed gun permits.
Supervisor Chris Norby responded this week by sending a mass e-mail accusing Hutchens of mounting a "misguided jihad" on gun-rights advocates, prompting calls from Hutchens' supporters for Norby to apologize.
"It's just childish on both sides," said George Wright, chairman of the criminal justice department at Santa Ana College. "(Hutchens) is going to have to tighten things up pretty quickly."
Some observers say that Hutchens is having a tough time adjusting from her past as a law enforcement bureaucrat to the give and take of politics.
Even Hutchens has noted that she doesn't see her job as political. She sees herself as sworn to uphold the state's laws in an objective manner.
"I don't make my decisions based on how the (county) supervisors will react," Hutchens said. "I'm the sheriff first."
In a letter sent Friday, county CEO Tom Mauk warned Hutchens that her fight with the board is a distraction that she can't afford. Instead of the gun permit issue or the videotape dispute, Hutchens' department should be concentrating on serious budget shortfalls, as well as curbing overtime and expanding the jail, Mauk wrote.
And so far, "little progress has been made," he wrote.
The fight between Hutchens and the board intensified this week when the sheriff learned that county executives made copies of the sheriff's surveillance tapes involving supervisors. Hutchens threatened to sue unless county officials agreed to certain conditions on how the tapes are kept and viewed.
Supervisors late Friday were balking at Hutchens' conditions.
"There is a crisis of confidence between the board and the sheriff, and that is not a good place to be eight months into office," Norby said.
For her part, Hutchens has said: "All I'm trying to do is put the policy back in line with what the law says (on concealed weapons). You can kind of see this is getting sliced up into a lot of different issues."
Hutchens inherited a generous gun-permit policy from ex-Sheriff Mike Carona, who was elected in 1998 on a platform that included allowing as many people as possible to carry weapons. Carona's administration issued 1,100 gun permits, among the most in the state. Hutchens is using tougher guidelines, which has incurred the wrath of supervisors as well as permitholders.
A hearing Nov.18 brought a crowd of angry gun activists to the Santa Ana boardroom, where they spent hours defending their perceived right to bear arms. During the mammoth meeting, high-level sheriff's officials used their BlackBerrys to send text messages among themselves, often mocking the board and the speakers.
"We are locked in mortal battle. It is ugly," texted Assistant Sheriff Michael Hillmann, a former LAPD deputy chief recruited by Hutchens to help rebuild the department. In a later text, Hillmann wrote that he wanted to poke his eyeballs out after listening to hours of testimony.
Hillmann next turned his BlackBerry on Supervisor Janet Nguyen, a critic of Hutchens' gun-permit plan: "I hope Janet has a pet she can call a friend."
Amid a firestorm of criticism, Hutchens apologized, acknowledging the texts as "unprofessional."
At the next hearing, Jan. 13, sheriff's officials increased security in the boardroom because of an unspecified threat. Activists were met with large placards warning against carrying weapons into government buildings. Uniformed and undercover deputies roamed the boardroom in what some supervisors called an intimidating show of force. At lease three people were pulled aside by deputies and questioned.
Gun activists charged that the extra security was intended to dissuade them from testifying, a suspicion strengthened by the release of the text messages. (Emphasis added)
During that meeting, a deputy used a surveillance camera to zoom on Norby's notepad and on Nguyen's BlackBerry. Hutchens discovered the intrusion and reported it to the board, along with her apologies.
Norby and Nguyen accused the department of using government equipment to snoop on them, sparking a new battle over who owns the surveillance recordings. Earlier this month, in a public rebuke of Hutchens, supervisors voted unanimously to take ownership of the surveillance video and took action to remove the Sheriff's Department from providing security for the board.
This week, the dispute went red hot.
In a letter written to county supervisors Chairwoman Pat Bates on Feb. 4, Hutchens said she learned that the county computer staff had secured a copy of the recording from the meeting without her knowledge.
Hutchens said that she is worried that public disclosure of the video recordings could threaten undercover officers and their families. She also threatened litigation. (Emphasis added)
Hutchens' letter, called a "missile" by Bates, triggered a fierce response.
Mauk wrote Hutchens back on Friday, saying he was "highly offended" that she suggested board members or the county staff would willingly put undercover officers in harm's way by exposing their identities.
That was done by Hutchens, Mauk said.
"I've seen a lot of contentious meetings," Mauk said in an interview, "and I have never seen a police chief put an undercover officer in a public meeting."
Hutchens' approach, said Mauk, Bates, Nguyen and Norby, is drawing heavy opposition and could have long-term consequences.
"This issue is really escalating. And she keeps on pushing," Nguyen said. "Some of these issues have escalated to the point where we do have a problem. There's a sheriff that doesn't want to work with us; she wants to do what she wants to do."
Bates remembers talking to Hutchens when she first took office, issuing a friendly warning about the challenges of moving from a bureaucrat to an elected official.
"Our job as decisionmakers is to see the gray," Bates said. "This is a job of representation, not just following the book."
For her part, Hutchens has said she is focused on enforcing the law, not politicking.
And she's comfortable leaving her political fate in the hands of Orange County residents, as opposed to supervisors, political parties or activist groups.
She likes her chances, often saying "I have tremendous faith in the voters of this county."