Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens testified in a wrongful-termination suit filed by five top former sheriff’s officials that she did not want to let any of them go, but a budget shortfall forced the issue.
Hutchens said she had no issues with the work of former Assistant Sheriffs Jack Anderson and John Davis and ex-Captains Brian Cossairt, Deana Bergquist and Robert Eason, who are seeking millions in damages as well as their jobs back. She testified that she let them go to avoid having to lay off deputies or investigators.
“I needed everybody who was there, but I had to make some difficult choices,” Hutchens testified in the non-jury trial that will be decided by Orange County Superior Court Judge Frederick Aguirre.
The former sheriff’s officials claim Hutchens fired them to bring in colleagues from her prior job in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department when she was appointed sheriff to replace Mike Carona, who was convicted of witness tampering.
The plaintiffs claim they were denied their right to a hearing on their dismissal.
Under questioning from plaintiffs’ attorney Joel Baruch, Hutchens testified about asking the Orange County Board of Supervisors multiple times to restore $7.3 million in cuts to her department in 2008 when the county was struggling with deficits. The sheriff said she felt that if she could get the $7.3 million she could avoid making layoffs of lower-ranking deputies and investigators.
Hutchens said she was told that any cuts she made among deputies and investigators below the rank of sergeant would have to be done by seniority. That wasn’t the case among the “command staff” from the ranks of lieutenant and higher.
“My purpose was to get (the $7.3 million) reinstated so I wouldn’t have to do any layoffs,” Hutchens testified.
When the supervisors refused to give her what she wanted, Hutchens turned her focus to a plan to lay off two assistant sheriffs and six captains. She combined various departments and had some lieutenants pick up supervisory roles as she herself personally oversaw the coroner’s division and the crime lab to save money.
Baruch asked Hutchens if she was swayed by political pressure from unions representing deputies and non-sworn civilian employees, but the sheriff said the association for the deputies was backing another candidate for sheriff.
Baruch also quizzed Hutchens on her promotion of multiple sergeants to lieutenant just as she was considering the plan to lay off the captains and assistant sheriffs. Baruch questioned why Hutchens didn’t forego the promotions and let the laid-off captains take demotions to lieutenant to stay on the payroll.
“Those positions were in the budget and had money attached to them — that’s what you’re missing,” Hutchens replied.
The sheriff said she doubted she could close her deficit by letting captains and assistant sheriffs take demotions.
Hutchens also defended her hiring of former co-workers from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to senior positions. She said they were needed to fill gaps in various divisions of her department such as risk management and how to prepare for large-scale emergencies.
Hutchens said the risk-management division especially needed her attention in the wake of the fatal beating of an inmate in Orange County Jail in 2006.
— City News Service
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