O.C. Government Given Dismal Review by Panel
Orange County government has no long-range vision of its future, lacks sufficient oversight, awards contracts unfairly and is run by supervisors who don’t appear to fully understand the workings of the bureaucracy, a citizen panel appointed by the supervisors concluded Thursday.
The panel’s report paints a picture of a dysfunctional government, plagued by low employee morale and mired in red tape and obsolete operational practices.
The comprehensive and often scathing report contains more than 100 recommendations for restructuring county government in light of its December 1994 bankruptcy. It was based on 15 months of research, which included hundreds of interviews with county employees, vendors, contractors, politicians and other people who do business with the county.
A draft copy of the report was circulated Thursday and will be presented in final form to the Board of Supervisors in coming weeks. The Government Practices Oversight Committee was commissioned by the board last year to take a critical look at the government and suggest improvements.
“We hope this raises public awareness of the problems in the county and hopefully motivates the board into action,” said William Mitchell, an Irvine attorney and vice chairman of the panel.”
The report was released on the same day the board approved a partial reorganization plan conceived by county Chief Executive Officer Jan Mittermeier. The CEO’s plan calls for the elimination of the General Services and Environmental Management agencies and shifts many of their functions to other departments.
While Mittermeier’s plan addresses some of the inefficiencies highlighted in the committee’s report, panel members said the CEO’s recommendations should be only a first step in a much more extensive overhaul of the county government, as well as the operations of cities and special districts.
Key recommendations in the report include:
* Establishing a permanent oversight committee or full-time ombudsman to watch over all government activities.
* Turning over the libraries, animal control and land-use planning to cities.
* Eliminating “political patronage” when awarding contracts or privatizing by developing a “strict policy of fair, competitive bidding” that would address sunset provisions in contracts, limit lobbying and establish performance standards.
* Reducing the number of executive assistants for supervisors and creating a pool of legislative analysts to be shared among the five board members.
* Privatizing audit functions, tax collections, legal work and other services that can be contracted out.
* Merging the clerk of the board functions with the clerk/recorder department.
* Cutting excessive fees currently being accessed by the clerk/recorder.
* Directing the CEO to annually review and eliminate duplicative or redundant services provided by the county.
* Investigating areas where the responsibilities of the county, cities and special districts overlap or are needlessly duplicated, so that cost savings could be realized.
* Giving cities a bigger role in the operation of county airports, landfills, parks and flood control projects.
The report, which has yet to be released to most supervisors, drew a mixed reaction.
“The board should very seriously consider these recommendations. It gives us good information and a basis on which to move forward,” said Supervisor Marian Bergeson, who got the report late Thursday. “I think on the whole that this is an ambitious and effective effort from volunteers. It’s the first time we’ve seen this kind of extensive breakdown and analysis.”
Others were less enthusiastic.
“Gee, I’m surprised we’ve been able to do anything positive with that type of assessment,” said Supervisor William G. Steiner, who was only told of the findings and had not seen the report.
“There should always be a context for what is not done well, with things that are done well. There should be a balanced perspective,” he added. “Certainly, we’ve had to be reactive lately because we’ve had to deal with the bankruptcy crisis. Seems like you could have these type of criticisms for all levels of government.”
Board Chairman Roger R. Stanton said he’s anxious to review the complete report of the panel, but also took issue with some of the findings, especially those based on focus groups and interviews.
“This is a volunteer organization. It is not a professional polling organization,” he said. “The weight of the [focus group] results must be considered in that light.”
Stanton said he was surprised and disappointed by some portions of the report, including the finding that the role of the board is unclear to the public.
“I think if you look at any survey, you can find that very few people can name their elected representatives at the city and county level,” Stanton said. “That is a problem best solved by an alert and attentive public.”
Stanton said he was also puzzled by the report’s finding that awarding of county contracts and privatization “seems to be a form of political patronage.”
“If anyone has hard evidence of patronage, bring it forward to the board and we will stamp it out,” Stanton said.
Bergeson acknowledged that some of the report’s findings were based on the perceptions of county employees and citizens, but said those were relevant because they “have an effect on the operations of the county. They need to be addressed.”
Mitchell defended the group’s methods, findings and use of “focus groups” to gather perceptual information.
“This is fact-based. We just didn’t sit around a table and say what we thought was wrong with the county,” Mitchell said. “We went out and had focus groups, interviewed department heads. This is not just stuff off the wall. It is gleaned from the county.”
The focus groups not only criticized the supervisors but also revealed concerns about their own ranks. According to the report, the focus groups said there is a perception that lazy, “deadwood” employees are tolerated and not fired. Moreover, they also expressed concern that there were too many mid-level managers working at the county and that employee morale was low.
The committee report represented the second phase of the panel’s extensive review. In the first phase, the committee probed county departments, interviewed hundreds of people and reviewed reams of budget documents to compile a comprehensive “Fact Book” on which to base it recommendations.
The committee’s lengthy and detailed study stood in sharp contrast to the somewhat sketchy plan from Mittermeier, who developed her restructuring proposal relatively quickly and with very little public or county input.
Mittermeier’s plan was developed in part by a private consulting firm that was paid $80,000 for its services.
The members of the board-appointed committee came from all walks of life and included several business executives, government officials, a representative of the League of Women Voters, developers, a union representative and a founding member of the grass-roots organization that has closely monitored county affairs since the bankruptcy. All volunteered their time to work on the project.
Bill Ward, an anti-tax activist, said he was interested in reading the committee’s report because it was prepared by citizens rather than government officials and consultants.
“The more people who are involved in a plan like this, I think the more acceptable it will be to people,” Ward said.
The committee was scheduled to release its findings on county law enforcement today.
On Thursday morning, the board gave enthusiastic support to Mittermeier’s plan, calling it the first step in a larger countywide restructuring plan that will involve cities and special districts as well.
“When we reach our destination, we will have achieved a new vision for the county of Orange,” Mittermeier said.
The internal county reorganization will be carried out over the next three months as many functions now handled by the Environment Management and General Services agencies are handed off to other departments.
Mittermeier said her plan will cut costs yet to be determined, eliminate layers of bureaucracy and allow for greater privatization efforts.
The board also gave tentative approval Thursday to a “mission statement” that lists public safety, public health, environmental protection, regional planning, public assistance, social services and aviation as “core businesses” that the county will retain during the restructuring effort.
But officials said the county will consider dropping other responsibilities that other agencies might be able to handle at a cost savings.
“We must ask, ‘Should we be in this business?’ If not, let’s drop it or privatize it,” Mittermeier said.