On way out, L.A. County CEO urges supervisors to keep exec's authority

Two county supervisors want to return to the old system to give the CEO less authority

On his way out the door as part of an unusual turnover in Los Angeles County government, retiring chief executive William T Fujioka offered a few cautions to the next Board of Supervisors.

Expect increased pressure from unions, avoid the tendency to micromanage the staff, and be careful about a proposal by two current board members to scale back the authority of the next chief executive.

Fujioka, 62, stepped down this week after seven years as the county's top administrator. His departure coincided with the retirement of Supervisors Gloria Molina and Zev Yaroslavsky, both forced out by term limits after more than 20 years on the board. Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and former state lawmaker Sheila Kuehl will replace them Dec. 1.

In an interview prior to his exit, Fujioka outlined major issues facing the county, including the impending reconstruction of the dilapidated Men's Central Jail, the need to replace the seismically compromised Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and the county's Civic Center headquarters downtown, an impending federal consent decree over treatment of mentally ill jail inmates, and continuing reforms in the child-welfare system.

"There are so many things that are happening right now … you can't afford to make a critical mistake," he said.

He asked the new board members to do a comprehensive study and consult with top county managers before making any changes in the governance structure. The majority of the top professional staff reports directly to the chief executive and not the elected supervisors, but before Fujioka came along, it was the other way around.

"If they do it at one board meeting in December or January, I think that would be one of the worst mistakes this county has ever made," he said. "You don't make decisions of that magnitude in a knee-jerk kind of fashion."

Fujioka also said he expects greater pressures on the board and chief executive from organized labor, as a new majority takes office, thanks in part to heavy union campaign support and as county revenues increase in the wake of the recession. After years of belt-tightening, he said, the employees "deserve something. But they deserve something within reason and what we can afford."

A telling sign could come if the new board reverses fiscal policies put in place by the old board, including a supermajority requirement for employee pay increases, he said.

"That would be a very, very bad signal," he said. "And that would have to be the first signal or the first action that would have to take place to loosen up the county's finances."

Bob Schoonover, president of Service Employees International Union Local 721, which represents about 55,000 county employees, praised Fujioka as "sincere in his motives" in his dealings with labor over the years but said he "respectfully disagrees" with him about the supermajority requirement.

"I think we have to trust the voters.… I think the new board will take a look at it and make a judgment," he said. Schoonover said that in the coming year, labor will focus on raising the minimum pay for county employees and contractors to $15 an hour.

Fujioka worked for the county in various capacities for nearly 20 years before going to the city of Los Angeles, where he served as chief administrative officer for eight years. He returned to the county in 2007 as part of a major redistribution of power. The supervisors at that time decided to give up some direct control over the county's three dozen departments to the chief executive, in hopes that a strong executive system would mean more accountability and better communication between departments.

Two current supervisors, Mark Ridley-Thomas and Michael D. Antonovich, want to switch back to the old system, in which department heads reported directly to the board. They are hoping to find a third vote from one of the new board members.

Ridley-Thomas declined to comment on Fujioka's assessment that it would be unwise to change the system now. Antonovich, however, pointed out that he has been on the board for 34 years and watched both systems in action. Whereas proponents of the stronger executive say the system has succeeded in getting departments to cooperate more, Antonovich said the opposite has happened.

"The CEO's staff has ballooned, so you have a larger staff and less interdepartmental communication, which is so vital," he said.

Yaroslavsky — the main proponent of the strong executive system — has said that the board never fully embraced it and continued to micromanage daily operations of departments.

Fujioka agreed but said having department heads report to one executive instead of five elected officials provided a buffer that allowed department heads to do their work without fear that a single misstep would cost their jobs.

Supervisor Don Knabe, a strong supporter of Fujioka's, and — so far — an opponent of weakening the chief executive role, echoed that: "If there's a nervous time for anyone, I think it's with the department heads, because Bill was clearly an advocate for them."

Knabe and several of his colleagues praised Fujioka's steady leadership and stewardship of the county's $26-billion budget during the recession and his knack for fostering relationships.

The supervisors had initially been pushing to find a replacement for Fujioka before Molina and Yaroslavsky departed but put the effort on hold after incoming board members and candidates objected, saying they should be able to choose the new executive.

The board appointed Fujioka's second in command, Brence Culp, to take over as acting chief executive while the search continues. Culp said she would be honored to continue in the position permanently if the board asked her to. There are others potentially in line for the job, including some other internal county candidates and Los Angeles City Chief Administrative Officer Miguel Santana.

Culp said she had heard "pretty universal feedback" that there had been increased cooperation between departments during Fujioka's tenure but said it was hard to tell whether that was because of the new structure or because of Fujioka's personal management style. She declined to comment on the debate over the future structure of the office.


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