The election of John MacDonald to the county Board of Supervisors on Nov. 4 completed a transformation in county government that has seen five feuding fiefdoms give way to a group of elected officials who say they are intent on reaching regional goals with a minimum of rancor.
When MacDonald, now an Oceanside city councilman, replaces defeated Supervisor Paul Eckert, all five seats on the board will have changed hands since 1983.
With a voter-approved 1984 law regulating the behavior of county supervisors and a new chief executive to carry out the board's policies, the county is now positioned to take the lead role in solving some of the region's chronic problems, supervisors and government observers agree.
Growth management, criminal justice planning, and the provision of health and social services to an increasingly urbanizing county are among the items the supervisors will address when MacDonald takes his seat on the board in January.
"MacDonald's election really shows the board has moved dramatically to the center of the spectrum on almost every issue," Supervisor Brian Bilbray said. "It's a very consolidated board. I think that's going to be reflected in how successful we are with our programs. On land issues and everything else, our credibility is going to be much better because both sides of every issue are going to be turned over."
Supervisor Susan Golding said she is pleased that, with MacDonald's election, every member of the board will now have served in municipal government before moving on to the county.
"I think he rounds out the board," Golding, a former San Diego city councilwoman and state official, said. "We now have a board that has experience at more than one elective job, and that offers a perspective that is invaluable."
Supervisor George Bailey, a former mayor of La Mesa, added: "From what I know of him, his background, his philosophy, are very similar to mine."
The addition of MacDonald to the board is expected by many to have less of an impact than the subtraction of Eckert, who was the final remaining member of a group of caustic, often clashing supervisors who ruled the county in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Only four years ago, Eckert was on the board with Roger Hedgecock, Jim Bates, Paul Fordem and Tom Hamilton, all of whom are now gone. Bates, now representing the 44th Congressional District, is the only one of the group still holding public office.
In those days, Hedgecock was the dominant figure on the board, and he was joined in many political endeavors by Bates. The pair had a reputation for publicly brow-beating the county staff, sometimes to the point of bringing seasoned professional bureaucrats to tears.
During that era, the board, among other actions, approved the county's growth management plan, reorganized the county administration, mandated increased conservation through regulations requiring greater use of solar heating, and presided over cutbacks in health and social services after the passage of tax-cutting Proposition 13 in 1978.
Bates' departure for Congress and Hedgecock's for the mayor's office in the first six months of 1983 left something of a power vacuum on the board. Eckert, who was elected to a second term in 1982, tried to assume the leadership role that Hedgecock and Bates had filled. Eckert teamed with Fordem and the new pair worked to redistribute county funds toward their districts in North County and East County, which they contended had been neglected for years.
Tom Hamilton, the former supervisor from South Bay, joined Eckert and Fordem in a loose coalition on many matters, but the board sometimes seemed like five fiefdoms feuding over spoils. Leon Williams, the lone liberal, was isolated, and Patrick Boarman, the National University professor appointed to complete Hedgecock's term, could rarely find an audience for his proposals.
County staff members complained privately that board members routinely summoned them to their private offices and ordered pet projects begun or studies undertaken. Then-county Chief Administrative Officer Clifford Graves complied, in part to win votes for his own initiatives as he played board members' ambitions off against each other.
In the meantime, the county's administration found itself increasingly plagued by problems and scandal.
The personnel system was accused of mismanagement and its director was demoted. The General Services Department's handling of bids for a new telephone system ended in the resignation of two high-ranking employees and the indictment of 13 people on charges of racketeering, bribery and fraud.
In the Department of Health Services, the county came under fire for substandard care, poor maintenance and bad management at Edgemoor Geriatric Hospital and the county's Hillcrest mental health hospital. The coroner's office also came under attack from doctors and lawyers who contended the office--understaffed and poorly equipped--was botching autopsies that were key to the prosecution and defense of criminal cases.
Amid this unrest, county voters elected Imperial Beach Mayor Bilbray, Bailey and Golding and approved charter changes making it easier for the board to fire its chief administrator while at the same time prohibiting board members from interfering in the day-to-day management of the county.
The charter amendments were backed by officials in the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce, who at that time saw the City of San Diego as a model of the best in government and the county as an example of the worst.
Since 1984, however, the two agencies have reversed roles. Hedgecock, convicted of campaign law violations 2 1/2 years after he was elected mayor, was forced to resign. Councilman Uvaldo Martinez quit his post after pleading guilty to misusing a city credit card. The director of the city's Housing Commission came under criticism for sloppy management, and now the chief of police has been accused of fixing traffic tickets for family, friends and influential San Diegans.
The county, meanwhile, has taken steps to improve its image.
Shortly after they took office, Bilbray, Golding and Bailey forced chief administrator Graves to resign. Graves, who had a cool personality and a domineering management style, was replaced by Norman Hickey, an open, affable man who prides himself on taking direction from his elected bosses.
The board members have since concentrated on major policy decisions while giving Hickey tremendous leeway to reorganize his staff and set management priorities, many of which are expected to take shape within the next few months.
Bailey has focused on the technical side of government operations, proposing improved coordination of countywide fire services, stricter enforcement of planning regulations, and steps to obtain more funds for the county from state government.
Bilbray, for the most part, has concentrated on two issues that affect his South Bay district but also the entire region: illegal immigration and its effect on the county, and the flow of untreated sewage across the Mexican border into the United States.
Golding, while involving herself in many issues, has tended to concentrate on questions involving the county's provision of health and social services to the indigent and working poor.
"You've got a board now that is really more interested in dealing with the problems of the county rather than having their own political agendas," said one longtime observer of county government. "You don't have the super egos that predominated when you had Roger and Eckert and Jim Bates all at the same time."
MacDonald is seen as fitting in well with that trend.
"The three new board members came in with the same ideas in terms of regionalization," said another source at the county. "The odd man out was Eckert, who was really a fallback to the past when parochialism reigned. I think MacDonald will fit in better with the approach of the board."
Dorothy Migdal, who monitors county government for the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, said she thinks MacDonald will be "very comfortable" with the current board.
"His style is quiet and that seems to be a pattern that's developing on the Board of Supervisors," she said. "I think that the model for a while was the Hedgecock-Bates sort of model. I think that era is behind us. The new members elected are content to do a good job and stay on the job in San Diego. They're less upwardly mobile in their ambitions.
"The real difference is that these people are problem solvers," Migdal added. "They're less interested in chasing headlines and more interested in really solving problems."
Golding said all four members of the board elected since 1984 campaigned on reform platforms.
"These four were elected when people were strongly demanding serious changes in county government, strongly demanding clean-up and better management, fewer scandals and stronger policy leadership," she said. "I think we are all committed to making sure that the problems we encountered when we came in are not here when we leave."
Williams, a former San Diego councilman who with Eckert's departure will become the board's most senior member, said MacDonald's reputation as "an intelligent, knowledgeable and understanding person" is just what the board needs.
"I think the board needs that to coalesce, to drive itself and the county on some kind of unified course of action rather than having everybody trying to create a solution to all the problems at the same time," Williams said.