It's perfectly understandable that county supervisors are frustrated by the continuing travails of the Department of Children and Family Services. Its failings have profound consequences: children who die because they are left with abusive parents; children placed in foster care situations that are dangerous or even deadly. So the supervisors' impulse to hold the department accountable is commendable.
The lack of progress at DCFS is "completely unacceptable and frankly embarrassing," Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas told me last week. Ridley-Thomas' solution, which two of his colleagues joined him in approving, is to name a commission to study the county's handling of abused and neglected children and to report back in a little over six months with recommendations for improvement.
But is that really the best the supervisors can do? There's a case to be made on either side of the question. My colleagues on The Times' editorial board, for instance, supported the commission, arguing that it could give supervisors and the public insight into the state of the agency. "How can the public and the county supervisors know whether DCFS is on the reform track or if its problems are intractable?" the board asked. "It's that question that a commission … can answer."
I hope that's true, but there is another factor to consider when it comes to county government: The supervisors are hell on their top aides, and appointing this commission could well add to their reputation as a group of bosses who refuse to let their managers manage.
Some county department heads do OK — they keep a low profile and hope their agencies don't land in the news. But woe to the manager whose department comes under public scrutiny or criticism. That person can be assured of a public tongue-lashing by the board — Supervisor Gloria Molina's critiques are infamously withering — as well as a deluge of demands. Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, meanwhile, is notoriously willing to dump on managers who bring embarrassment to the board.
In fact, no one on the board is a shrinking violet. Managers, then, need constantly to make sure they have the support of at least three supervisors or risk being pilloried, fired or both.
In the case of the DCFS, the agency's top official, Philip Browning, has only been on the job for a little over a year. When he took the post after serving for a time as interim director, he warned the supervisors that he believed it would take three years to turn it around. But now an board majority, reacting to the recent tragedy of a child's death, has decided it won't wait and opted for this commission.
That said, the commission itself may have promise: Ridley-Thomas has named two exceptionally qualified candidates — David Sanders, who once headed the DCFS, and Marilyn Flynn, dean of USC's School of Social Work — and other supervisors are contributing high-quality appointees as well. The larger message, though, is that even department heads who deliver exactly what they promised may soon have a board of inquiry combing their work.
That's partly why Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky voted against the new commission. "We need to give the director the space to do what he was hired to do," Yaroslavsky said last week.
Yaroslavsky supported — in fact, proposed — a similar commission to investigate violence in Los Angeles jails, and that commission has been widely and properly praised for its work. But the supervisor argues that the jail commission was different: Because Sheriff Lee Baca is an independently elected official, the supervisors have no authority to order him to make changes. The commission, then, was their best way to get his attention.
That's not true with respect to DCFS. There, the manager works for the board, and the supervisors can fire him at will.
Indeed, one question that the existence of this new commission raises is why a group of outsiders is needed to bring perspective to the agency when that's precisely what the board is supposed to have been doing all along. As Yaroslavsky ruefully put it: "We are the blue-ribbon commission."
This commission may do good work, and certainly the agency can use all the help it can get. But it also may make it harder to hire the next general manager of the next troubled department. If that's the case, the county will have addressed one problem, only to deepen another.
On another subject, this column will be taking a hiatus. Starting next week, I'll be on book leave, collaborating with former Defense Secretary, congressman and CIA Director Leon Panetta on his autobiography. I look forward to returning to The Times — and to this column — in the spring.