Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and Orange County Fire Authority Chief Jeff Bowman told the Orange County Board of Supervisors Tuesday that despite 40 meetings, they cannot reach an agreement on how to coordinate search-and-rescue efforts.
The supervisors refused their requests to appoint or hire a mediator and advised both sides to keep negotiating for the time being.
Officials believe there was an agreement between the sheriff and firefighters dating to the 1960s, but no one can find the document so the supervisors instead decided to adopt search-and-rescue protocol for the sheriff before a memorandum of understanding with the fire authority, which is a separate agency not answerable to the county board, expires in about a month.
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Supervisor Lisa Bartlett implored the board to also recommend the hiring of an outside, third-party negotiator to bring the two sides together on a new agreement. But her motion to appoint a mediator if there's no new MOU within 60 days failed when no one would second it.
Leon Page, the county's general counsel, also recommended hiring some sort of "neutral" negotiator, such as a retired judge, or a panel of experts from outside both agencies to work on a draft agreement the board could consider for adoption. He also offered his office's services to negotiate some sort of peace.
"At the end of the day, this is a battle over documents and that's what us lawyers do," Page said.
Supervisors Andrew Do and Shawn Nelson said they did not want outside help at this time.
Nelson said the firefighters and deputies "have to act like adults, get this organized."
He added, "Both parties have plenty of sin to go around ... But they should knock it off and start working together."
Do argued that he did not want fact-finding to be "delegated to a third party." He said a mediator or any other sort of negotiator could draw a conclusion from different facts that he, or the board, might find on their own.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer disagreed with Do.
"I don't think we should sit as fact-finders," Spitzer said. "We don't have the expertise ... We need someone to write a report and make recommendations to us."
Nelson said the board could intervene and impose arbitration or a mediator on both sides later if the two sides cannot come to an agreement.
"If we need to further address this, there are a variety of ways we can," Nelson said. "Let's just accept now that we all know this needs to be resolved. They've heard our statements. If they can't get it done without us ... then they'll see what it's like to have us help them do their jobs."
Hutchens and Bowman said they wanted the board to hire a mediator for them.
"I'm sorry we haven't been able to reach an agreement," Hutchens told the board. "I thought we had one and it was not approved by the (OCFA). I like the idea of having a mediator. I think we are at an impasse ... I think the idea of some sort of outside mediator is a good one."
Continued negotiations with the fire authority "would be a waste of time at this point," Hutchens said.
Bowman echoed that sentiment.
"Another 60 days to renegotiate what we have been unable to negotiate would be a waste of time," Bowman said.
Without today's ordinance authorizing the sheriff's protocol for search- and-rescue operations, the deputies would be "out of the business of search and rescue," Page told the supervisors.
That would mean deputies could no longer search for "missing kids" or even use "cadaver dogs" at a crime scene, Page said.
Bartlett said there have been "some close calls with the helicopters" from both agencies responding to search-and-rescue incidents.
"We really do have to give some direction," Bartlett said. "If we don't, then we're setting everyone up for failure and we're putting the public at risk, because we have an MOU that will expire in 30 days. And if we have nothing, if there's no resolution here ... we're at fault for putting the public at risk, and I'm not going to have that on my conscience."
The roiling dispute over which agency should take charge in search-and- rescue operations from the air came to a boil in Laguna Beach recently when there was a near-drowning and the sheriff's helicopter got there first.