San Diego County officials have placed their top lawyer on personal leave, ending a yearlong tenure that began after three progressive Democrats were elected to the Board of Supervisors and conducted a nationwide search for a county counsel.
Lonnie Eldridge, who was the Simi Valley city attorney before he was recruited by San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chair Nathan Fletcher and others, left the job on June 30 — one year to the day after he began.
No public reason was offered by county supervisors, who announced the departure and his acting successor following a special closed-session board meeting Thursday. Both Fletcher and county spokesman Michael Workman declined to comment on the developments.
Claudia Silva, who worked in the County Counsel’s Office before moving over to the county Office of Ethics and Compliance, will rejoin her prior department and serve as acting county counsel until a permanent successor is named.
The leadership change is the latest in a string of departures at the County Counsel’s Office in the past two-plus years.
Longtime chief Thomas Montgomery left in 2020. Thomas Bunton, a top assistant in the office, was named county counsel in late 2020, one of the last acts of the Republican-led board that governed San Diego County for decades until term limits were imposed by voters.
But Bunton was not the choice of the more politically progressive Democrats who took majority control of the Board of Supervisors after the November 2020 election. They launched a national search early in 2021 and Eldridge got the job.
So far this year, three department chiefs within the law office also have left the county.
The breadth of public services delivered by San Diego County — including health and human services, juvenile dependency courts and a Sheriff’s Department with nearly 2,500 sworn deputies — makes for a complicated set of responsibilities within the County Counsel’s Office.
With a budget of about $34 million and a staff of 150 full-time employees, the office provides legal advice to the county’s many departments and also to the Board of Supervisors when the county is sued or pursues lawsuits.
Litigation has been a critical issue within the county government in recent years, as the Board of Supervisors has wrestled with lawsuits alleging misconduct and excessive use of force by Sheriff’s Department deputies and wrongful or negligent deaths in the county jails.
Last week, the county agreed to pay just over $8 million to the family of Nicholas Bils, an unarmed man diagnosed with schizophrenia who was running away from the downtown central jail when he was shot in the back by a deputy and later died.
In October, the board agreed to pay $2.95 million to the family of Heron Moriarty, who killed himself in the Vista jail in 2016 despite dozens of frantic phone calls the man’s wife made to jail staff to warn them he was suicidal.
And earlier this year, San Diego County was hit with an $85 million jury verdict in a federal civil rights case filed by the family of a man who died after being hog-tied and shocked with a Taser by sheriff’s deputies in 2015.
The County Counsel’s Office filed motions in U.S. District Court seeking to reduce the jury award or win a new trial.
San Diego County lawyers are also defending a civil-rights case filed last year by the local ACLU chapter and two other law firms. That case, which appears headed for trial, alleges that conditions inside jails are overly dangerous and lead to unnecessary illnesses and deaths.
Eldridge, a UCLA law school graduate with more than 20 years of experience, was hired last year at a base pay of almost $287,000. His successor collected a base pay of $249,000 last year, according to the Transparent California online public salary database.
It was not immediately clear if Silva will receive a raise for performing her new duties.