Declaring that Ventura County is “near financial chaos,” the county administrative officer hired just a week ago resigned without warning over the weekend after deciding he could never muster the support to fix “overwhelming problems,” county officials disclosed Monday.
The unexpected resignation of David L. Baker left county officials stunned and facing a crisis in leadership. With the county already reeling from a major Medicare fraud fiasco, Supervisor John K. Flynn compared Baker’s departure to that of “a five-star general leaving in the middle of battle.”
Baker, 50, who took over the Ventura administrator’s post Nov. 22 after leaving a similar job in San Joaquin County, sent supervisors a blistering six-page assessment of problems he said he was unaware of when he agreed to take the job. They include:
* A cash flow problem that has raised an auditor’s concerns about the county’s ability to meet payroll for its 7,100 employees. “This is an alarming, irresponsible situation, if true,” Baker wrote.
* The historically weak role of the chief administrative officer compared to the Board of Supervisors and certain department heads.
* A health care agency that is known for “withholding information, unresponsiveness, untimeliness and a reluctance to place information in writing.”
* Inadequate planning for long-term building projects, such as a new juvenile hall proposed in Ventura.
* The need to revamp a county ordinance that funnels all money from Proposition 172’s public safety tax to the county’s law enforcement departments. Unless altered, the ordinance will create a “dramatic and ongoing” imbalance between funding for public safety and all other county programs, such as libraries and health care.
* A general atmosphere of fear among employees about speaking out. “They fear for their livelihood,” Baker said.
* Philosophical and personal divisions on the five-member Board of Supervisors. “You each know about the issues among yourselves and how you do and don’t work together,” he wrote.
Baker wrote the letter Saturday and left instructions for copies to be faxed to each of the supervisors early Monday. Several county officials, including Supervisor Frank Schillo, said they were shocked but agreed with many of Baker’s conclusions.
Schillo pointed to the county’s failed attempt last year to merge its mental health and social services agencies, which may result in the loss of millions of dollars. The county also must pay a $15.3-million settlement of a civil fraud case relating to Medicare billings.
Supervisor Kathy Long, however, said she is puzzled by Baker’s assertion that he was unaware of the extent of the county’s fiscal problems. Long said board members were as open as possible during the recruitment process about the county’s money problems.
And if new information came to light, Baker should have shared it with the board, she said.
“I would have preferred, as a professional, that he had drafted this [letter] and then met with board members and said, ‘Here are the problems, what are we going to do to work on these?’ ”
On Monday, county Auditor Tom Mahon disclosed that a $2-million deficit forecast for this fiscal year has grown to $5 million. But Mahon insisted there is no need for alarm.
“We have serious problems, problems that require immediate prompt attention,” said Mahon, an elected official who has worked in county government nearly three decades. “But we have had problems before, and we have been able to handle them. We just need to take the necessary corrective action.”
Mahon said he will soon be going to the board with an analysis of the county’s finances and options for closing the deficit. The magnitude of the shortfall most likely means there will be significant cuts in some county programs, Mahon said.
The auditor denied Baker’s assertion that his office does a poor job of providing financial information to the county administrator and the Board of Supervisors.
“We have done basically what we are supposed to do, what the CAO and board members have asked us to do,” he said.
In his letter, Baker said Ventura County’s government structure gives too much power to the six elected officials who run public safety agencies, collect taxes and audit county finances while hindering the chief administrator’s ability to recommend actions that benefit the entire county.
The result is that elected officials and department heads bypass the administrator’s office, appealing directly to supervisors to vote for their programs, he said.
“This encourages business by lobbying rather than solid business analysis and prudent public policy,” Baker said.
Barry Hammitt, executive director of county government’s largest labor union, said the county has had a weak county administrator position for at least 25 years.
Staff writers Fred Alvarez and Gary Polakovic contributed to this story.