S.D. County's Besieged Top Executive Quits

Times Staff Writer

Ending weeks of speculation, Clifford Graves on Wednesday resigned as San Diego County's chief administrative officer.

Graves intends to remain on his $78,000-a-year job until the county hires his replacement, according to a written statement released Wednesday afternoon by Leon Williams, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors.

The statement said Graves would leave his post no later than Dec. 31.

The announcement came after a 2 1/2-hour closed meeting with county supervisors, and culminated weeks of hallway rumors and hints from supervisors that Graves' seven-year tenure with the county would soon end.

The 46-year-old former federal budget analyst has been under almost constant fire since Supervisors Susan Golding, Brian Bilbray and George Bailey joined Paul Eckert and Leon Williams on the board in January.

Review Had Been Delayed

A full-scale evaluation of Graves' performance, first set for June 19, was postponed twice because Bilbray was home ill with the chicken pox. On Wednesday, supervisors pushed the review back from the morning into the afternoon while they discussed labor negotiations and land-use matters.

But once the evaluation finally began, there apparently was little question that it would end in an expression of no confidence in Graves and a call for his resignation.

"I've never seen six people agree so much in my life," Bilbray said after the announcement. He said most of the meeting was spent writing the seven-paragraph statement to release to the press and public.

In his statement, Williams said the board "concurred with (Graves) that a change of command in that position would be in the best interests of both parties."

Williams said details of the transition would be worked out sometime after the board finishes its deliberations on the budget for the coming fiscal year.

Graves, who refused to comment publicly on his decision to step down, was quoted in the statement as saying he would be "exploring other professional opportunities, a desire deferred for some time at the request of the board." He did not elaborate.

Reaction to Graves' resignation from those who had called for it was swift and supportive.

"I think they've been patient, way too patient, with the leadership from Cliff's office on down through the trouble spots in the county," said Assemblyman Larry Stirling (D-San Diego), who has called for Graves' resignation because of problems in two county medical institutions that use state funds.

"I don't think you should be very patient at all with high-level, highly paid trustees in executive positions," Stirling said. "They are paid to get the job done, not to sit in a chair."

Denise Lavell, a member of the 1984-85 county grand jury, which issued a report last month all but calling for Graves to resign or be fired, said Graves is a "very polite, very nice person" whom "nobody dislikes."

"It's a matter of the county being in such potentially deep trouble that they (county supervisors) feel it's time to start over again and implement their own policies," Lavell said.

Graves, with his lanky 6-foot-3 frame, bald head and distinctive, short-cropped beard, has been a fixture at the County Administration Center since 1976, when he came to San Diego from Washington. The San Francisco native had served in the capital as deputy associate director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.

A graduate of UC Berkeley with a master's degree in city planning, Graves took his first professional job in 1961 as an urban planner with the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission. He worked for the City of Santa Rosa and in Great Britain before joining the federal government.

When he came to San Diego, Graves used his Washington experience to set up and direct a county Office of Management and Budget, which did most of the county's financial analysis and budget preparation.

Two years later, when David K. Speer retired after 19 years of county service, Graves replaced him as chief administrative officer.

Although Graves is known for his low-key personality, his tenure as the county's top administrator has been anything but quiet.

Graves took over on July 14, 1978, barely five weeks after California voters passed Proposition 13, the property-tax-cutting measure that threw the budgets of local governments into disarray.

In San Diego, that meant the Board of Supervisors was increasingly forced to choose between law enforcement and social programs, between running the day's business and planning for the future.

Much of that planning took place in Graves' old management and budget office, but the OMB was eliminated by the board in 1982 and replaced by a much smaller unit in the chief administrator's office.

That move came to be seen as a signal to Graves from the board to provide stronger leadership, to delegate less and involve himself more in the day-to-day affairs of the county.

"He's not cracking the whip," Supervisor Paul Eckert said at the time.

But Graves, who never changed his style, weathered that storm and many others in seven years, including mismanagement in the county's personnel department and a scandal involving a multimillion-dollar contract for a new county phone system.

In an interview with The Times in 1981, Graves said he deliberately chose to avoid competing with the county supervisors for the spotlight, separating as much as possible the county's daily functions from the often-caustic criticism directed at his staff.

"My value diminishes if I become an advocate on an issue, even though I may have strong views," Graves said. "I'm not paid to give my opinion on Tuesdays (board meeting days). If I want to, I'll do it privately."

That manner helped Graves survive the county's crises, but his bosses were not as lucky. Last year, three of the five supervisors left office and were replaced by a new majority intent on changing the direction of county government.

In the same election, voters approved Proposition A, a County Charter amendment giving Graves more power while also making him more accountable to the Board of Supervisors. The measure gave Graves full authority to hire and fire department heads, and it prohibited board members from interfering in the county's daily operations. It also changed from four to three the number of votes on the board needed to fire the chief administrator.

Since January, when the new board members took office, there has been little doubt that, before long, there would be at least three votes in favor of ousting Graves.

And if Graves' grip on his job was already tenuous in January, mounting problems in the Department of Health Services all but assured that this year would be his last with the county. The county's Edgemoor Geriatric Hospital in Santee, where administrators and a professional review committee had long complained that conditions were poor, became the subject of intense state and local scrutiny.

Investigations this year by the county grand jury, the state auditor general and the county Civil Service Commission revealed serious lapses in patient care, management and maintenance at Edgemoor. Inspections by the state Department of Health Services nearly led to the withdrawal of federal Medicare and state Medi-Cal funding for the 323-bed hospital.

The county's mental health hospital in Hillcrest has been the subject of similar criticism. After newspaper stories about the hospital prompted a flood of complaints to state Assemblyman Stirling, Stirling released a package of confidential documents alleging that lax administration had led to poor patient care, which may have contributed to the deaths of at least three patients who had been treated at CMH, as the hospital is known.

Many of Stirling's allegations were confirmed in an auditor general's report released last week.

Still, Graves might have saved his job, or at least postponed his departure, had he been willing to fire James Forde, the health services director. Several board members said throughout the spring that they were closely watching Graves' handling of the health department, and they hinted repeatedly that they would like to see Graves fire Forde.

But as was always his custom, Graves stood by his appointee, insisting that nearly all the health department's problems were the result of cutbacks in funding and administration since the passage of Proposition 13.

Although the administrator at Edgemoor and the medical director at CMH were transferred to other county jobs, Forde stayed in place, even after a grand jury report said that he and his top staff were "out of touch" with events at the 92-bed emergency mental health hospital.

Citing problems in the health department and elsewhere, a June 4 grand jury report all but called for the county to fire Graves.

"No one is in control of San Diego County governmental responsibilities," the report said. The grand jury said it had "found a government in disarray and no one able leader, either elected or appointed."

Choosing a successor. Part II, Page 1.

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