government has few more cringe-inducing spectacles than the regular flaying of department heads by the county's Board of Supervisors. Countless such face-offs have occurred over the years, and inevitably, whatever the failings of the administrators in question, you end up feeling sorry for them.
When I heard about the confrontation that's building between the supes and some of their top deputies, I assumed it would end up with just another public whipping.
But on closer inspection, the current conflict seems a bit more complex. It revolves around the growing discontent among the supervisors for both the structure of the county government and the performance of its chief executive, William T Fujioka.
County officials are reluctant to discuss details of the conflict publicly, but a number of sources outlined them to me on the condition that they not be identified. In short, two supervisors,
, believe that Fujioka has interfered with their ability to get reliable information from county department heads, in this case information that would help them evaluate management of the county's Department of Children and Family Services and its Probation Department. A third member of the board, Michael D. Antonovich, shares their unhappiness but for a different reason: He believes even having a chief executive is a mistake, and that the board would be better off returning to the days when it had a less powerful county administrative officer and departments that reported directly to the board.
Three is the magic number in county government because it's a majority of the board. What it means in this case is that Fujioka, who has served as CEO since 2007, suddenly is in a fight to preserve his office and his job.
To some observers, this is yet another example of the board's dysfunction. The whole point of bringing in a CEO, after all, was to put a single manager in place to coordinate all the departments and stop the supervisors from trying to micromanage. And under Fujioka's leadership, the county has tackled important problems — it is, for instance, busy reconstructing the failed King/Drew hospital, a long-running disgrace — and has avoided some of the calamities that have befallen the city budget.
But the county continues to struggle in other ways, particularly with regard to two agencies that are directly responsible for the welfare of troubled children: the Probation Department and the Department of Children and Family Services. Foster care, the purview of DCFS, remains a stubbornly troubled system with a dismaying litany of deaths continuing even as caseloads drop. Similarly, the Probation Department has defied attempts to fix it, and some supervisors are resigned to — even eager for — a federal government takeover.
Behind closed doors, the supervisors and Fujioka have tussled repeatedly. Molina was said to be furious recently when the county's Probation Department director refused to answer a question from her; Yaroslavsky was reportedly livid when Fujioka launched an investigation into accusations that supervisors or their staffs were leaking confidential information to the press; and Antonovich lost his temper when one of Fujioka's deputies refused to sign a protocol that would have guaranteed the supervisors unfiltered access to information about DCFS, saying that to do so would make the board privy to confidential material.
When Antonovich's ire boiled over at the deputy, he introduced a motion that threatens to significantly cut Fujioka's authority. If approved by three members of the board, the proposal would strip Fujioka of the power to oversee DCFS and the Probation Department.
Molina was an easy sell: She relishes her role as bully in chief. But even a few months ago, it would have seemed inconceivable that Yaroslavsky would join such a motion. He was one of the chief advocates of creating the CEO position in 2007, and this motion effectively guts the CEO, saying he can only be trusted with departments that work well. But Yaroslavsky appears to be at his wit's end, increasingly annoyed that he feels supervisors no longer have access to information that would answer such delicate questions as how many children are dying in foster care and why.
Ever since adopting the CEO system, some of the supervisors have questioned the wisdom of it. Because they're the ones who will be held accountable for the county's failures at election time — and failure is what they've produced at DCFS and the Probation Department — shouldn't they also be directly in charge? One official close to this conflict explained it this way last week: It isn't, he said, about Fujioka; "it's about control."
The question is understandable. But the supervisors should remember that one reason it has been so hard to recruit and retain decent department heads is that no one wants a job without much power that comes with frequent trips to the village stocks.