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Setting a Steady Course for County Government Reform : More Discussion Needed Before Dismantling Agencies

When Orange County grouped dozens of separate departments and districts into the Environmental Management Agency more than 20 years ago, it was the result of nearly a year of discussion and debate, with the reorganization fully aired before the public.

When the proposal to dismantle the EMA was announced this month, the Board of Supervisors approved it the next day. Much more public discussion is needed.

There is remarkable similarity among the reasons given for forming the agency then and tearing it down now: more efficiency, less cost. But again, how we got from there to here, from then to now, deserves discussion.

The county’s bankruptcy in December 1994 deserves to be a watershed event. So far it has been treated that way, with an energized public demanding to know how the county operates and how it can be improved.

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The early, top-of-the-head reactions have not always proved workable. There were impediments to privatizing many services, a favorite theme of many reformers. Attempts to sell county property did not seem likely to produce as much revenue as had been hoped. The budget was slashed severely through laying off county employees, not filling vacant positions, and cutting programs.

Two months ago, when the Board of Supervisors saw that the county would soon emerge from bankruptcy, it told County Chief Executive Officer Jan Mittermeier to draw up a plan to restructure county government.

The first part of that plan, put forward this month, dismantles EMA and the General Services Agency. GSA was formed soon after the environmental agency two decades ago. It primarily serves other agencies of county government, providing services such as communications, data processing and janitorial. GSA deals with the public--and does it well--in the county library system and the registrar of voters, both of which will become independent departments. The rest of the agency will be scattered among other county departments.

The Environmental Management Agency will give some of its functions to two new, independent departments, Public Works and Planning and Development. EMA has important functions, such as running the county’s harbors, parks and beaches, and maintaining flood control developments. One of its jobs at its inception was to make it easier for people to get building permits approved.

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With the county more urbanized in the last 20 years, the job of county government deserves rethinking. Mittermeier noted that her plan takes into account numerous public reports, from grand juries to the Orange County Business Council to the Government Practices Oversight Committee, a citizens panel appointed by the supervisors last year. Those groups should give careful attention to Mittermeier’s proposals, which still require implementation and which are only the start of an overhaul of government.

For its part, the Government Practices Oversight Committee weighed in with its own draft report the day after Mittermeier’s proposal went to the supervisors.

The citizens group often was sharply critical of county government for having no vision of the future and not monitoring its own operations. The report is far easier to understand than the county’s own annual budgets. The committee deserves credit for explaining the agencies’ jobs, sources of money and number of workers.

Both the committee and Mittermeier studied a county with a budget of more than $3 billion and thousands of workers. A post-bankruptcy study echoed the conclusion of a previous county CEO that county workers are not overpaid and do a good job. Whether they are doing the right jobs, whether the county needs to change its operations, are what needs to be studied.

There is no need for haste. Even after all the discussion about forming EMA two decades ago, the agency got off to a rocky start; it saved money, but it did not get its work done smoothly at the start. Reforming government is not easy and plans seldom get implemented smoothly. Giving the public a voice in the process is necessary; after all, it’s the taxpayers who pay the bills and the residents whom government serves.


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