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Big Bonuses and Dixon Get the Knife

Gloria Molina began slicing up Los Angeles County Administrative Officer Richard Dixon at Tuesday’s supervisorial meeting about an hour before lunch.

At first, the newest Los Angeles County supervisor used her knife on the veteran chief fiscal officer in a deceptively slow manner, poking around, deciding where to cut, as if she were preparing to carve the Thanksgiving turkey.

Then she went to it: an attack on $3 million in bonuses awarded to county employees last year by Dixon and other top executives. The CAO had been a generous bonus-giver, handing out $2,000 to $2,500 to each of five staff members who supervised the $2-million renovation of the administrative offices.

Molina was especially angry because, over the previous two days, The Times had reported how the mentally ill are confined in almost medieval conditions in county jail. There’s no room for them in public hospitals or day-care clinics.

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A few minutes into her hourlong interrogation, Molina stuck the knife in deep. Her voice turned cold, her manner relentless. She leaned forward in her huge chair, interrupting Dixon with questions peppered with sarcasm.

Why were bonuses paid to administrative employes when health workers were being laid off? Dixon replied that it was for work “beyond the description of the job that produced additional revenue and savings.”

“Do nurses get these bonuses?” demanded Molina. “Does the guy who goes out and paves the street get these bonuses?.”

Or do they go “to a bunch of kiss-asses who are kissing up to a department head?”

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As the morning wore on, Dixon’s voice became weary. Memory failed him, surprising for a master bureaucrat who is famous for his command of the smallest details. “I just can’t answer the question . . . I simply do not have it (the information) at my fingertips,” he said at one point.

The hostility between Molina and Dixon is much more than a personal feud. Molina is convinced that by manipulating the $12-billion budget, Dixon is using the money for pet bureaucratic and supervisorial projects at the expense of funds for health care and other social services for the poor.

Under the county system, Dixon has tremendous budgetary power. He and his large staff write the spending document and present it to the board. In words that have become rote, Dixon yearly recites how most of the money must be spent on programs required by federal and state law. The supervisors, he says, are able to exercise discretion over only about $1 billion of the $12 billion.

Dixon distributes this so-called discretionary money to law enforcement, health facilities, beaches, parks, museums and other facilities in each supervisorial district, making sure each of his bosses gets an equal share. Political philosophy also shapes his decisions. When conservatives controlled the board and tough choices had to be made, the Dixon budget favored cops over hospitals.

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Since the supervisors each receive money for their pet projects, they have seemed to accept Dixon’s work at face value. Their staffs have not spent much time critically examining the budget, as is done by Congress or the Legislature. In fact, the budget is a slim document containing only the sketchiest details of how the county money is spent.

So, it’s been easy for Dixon to squirrel away money for his office and those of department heads who are loyal members of the “county team.”

Molina wants to stop the squirreling away. Put the money now used for bonuses, office remodeling and some of the other pet Hall of Administration projects on the budget table. Let bonuses compete with mental health for money in an open hearing, rather than making the decision behind the closed doors of Dixon’s office.

She brought up that point during budget hearings last month, but got little support from her colleagues.

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Tuesday, it was different. Molina’s go-for-the-gut style has made her the whistle-blowers’ heroine. A disgruntled employee leaked a memo to Molina telling of the bonuses. Molina fed the information to the press.

Bonuses when taxes are going up? Bonuses during a recession, when the GM plant in Van Nuys is closing?

Now, that’s an issue everyone can understand, every turned-off voter.

Her colleagues at the meeting, Deane Dana and Ed Edelman, obviously got the point. They sat silently as the Molina tongue-lashing got worse.

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Dana, in fact, was the the author of the motion that finally passed, suspending the bonuses. “There are times when good sense must intercede,” he said. Edelman made the vote unanimous.

For once, Richard Dixon had no defenders.


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