What if we had a county government with little territory over which to govern? What if that county government had a multibillion-dollar budget over which it had “virtually no control” but where those who do decide live outside that county? And what if we had a county government that appeared more as a “faceless enigma” rather than a streamlined, responsive, self-governing force for the public good?
Unfortunately, the answer to all these questions is, “We already do.” We call it Orange County and those are the descriptions offered by its own Board of Supervisors.
Ours is a general-law county where most decisions about its future, and the services it provides, are not made by the able men and woman we locally elected but are dictated to us by state officials in Sacramento.
With 29 cities, and at least two more on the way, there are few unincorporated areas of Orange County over which county government does indeed govern. With a $3.5-billion yearly budget, our Board of Supervisors has discretionary authority over a paltry 2% of it (about $70 million)! How it expends the remaining $3.43 billion has already been decided, primarily by Sacramento and secondarily by unyielding ballot propositions and predetermined fee structures. Yet the board is faced with enormous expectations by a public virtually uninformed about how these severe restrictions hamper the county’s ability to respond to the crises it faces in providing the services we need. Folks, something is terribly wrong.
That’s why in Tuesday’s State of the County address, outgoing board Chairman Don R. Roth urgently called for looking into establishing a county charter. It is not a new idea. It was looked at in 1966, ’70 and ’80, and abandoned. But Supervisor Roth is absolutely correct when he states that we must give “new life to old ideas if we are to solve the enormous problems facing this county.”
Roth has a history of challenging us to think about issues such as desert/local jail facilities; privately financed, super-speed trains between Anaheim and Las Vegas; and the pervasive encroachment of regionalism into local government authority. He is right to challenge Orange County voters now. He and his colleagues are increasingly vocal with their frustration over the outside demands thrust upon them while denied the authority to fulfill them.
Many in and out of county government sense that adoption of a charter may be the best way to reinvigorate county government. Here are just a few of the important reasons why:
Home Rule: As a matter of principle, Orange County voters and their elected Board of Supervisors ought to be making decisions about its procedures and spending priorities, not Sacramento. What does a state legislator from Weed or El Centro really know, or in some cases even care, about Orange County needs? But your supervisor does. Did you know that Orange County had to get permission from the state before it could put Measure M on the ballot? That’s wrong. Government works best when it is closest to the people it governs.
Role of County Government: Now that so much of Orange County is incorporated, should county government be charged with greater coordination among city governments? With regional bodies? What is the best role for the county administrative officer, who also oversees 16,000 county employees?
Privatization: Alameda and Los Angeles counties have already shown that this is one of the most important benefits of charter government. For example, millions could be saved by allowing private food service vendors to contract with the sheriff’s jail facilities. The Legislature has control over services that a general law county may contract out. In this instance, union lobbyists persuaded legislators to prohibit food contracts for jails. Imagine the savings if Orange County were allowed to review all county services with an eye toward privatization.
Government Reorganization: Tax savings could be further achieved through the consolidation of county departments. County boards and commissions could be brought under direct board control. Voter accountability would be well served.
Budgetary Control: Supervisors must have greater flexibility to plan long-term strategies and respond to short-term emergencies. Permitting greater control over revenues and expenditures, along with authority to redesign existing fee structures, would be a dramatic step forward. Relying on an unpredictable state government that cuts $40 million from an unsuspecting county budget only to be recaptured from unprepared city governments hardly makes for efficient planning.
Most of these issues are controversial and many more have gone undiscussed. And, of course, there are downsides. Taxes and fees could go up, but only with voter approval. Departments and commissions with worthy constituencies might get axed. Spending priorities will be changed.
But under a charter, we Orange County residents would be making many of these decisions for ourselves. No longer would they be imposed upon us by outsiders with agendas often different from our own. We couldn’t do any worse; surely we would do better.
Our county is in a crisis. Our supervisors need real power, resources and respect for the trust we place in them to make difficult decisions.
We, in turn, can then honestly hold them responsible. Supervisor Roth’s clarion call for a charter county review deserves our attention now, right now.