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Baker’s Departure Stuns County Officials

TIMES STAFF WRITER

County leaders and employees, upon learning Monday that the chief administrative officer resigned after less than a week on the job, reacted with anger, disbelief and concern.

Supervisors had differing views, with some acknowledging that David L. Baker, in a scathing six-page letter of resignation, helped expose pressing financial problems facing the county.

“The guy is honest, he’s straightforward, he’s out of a job, and he doesn’t want any pay,” Supervisor Frank Schillo said. “I have a lot of respect for him--that is a tremendous thing to do.

“I think he hit the nail on the head 80% of the time. That’s a pretty inexpensive evaluation of what’s going on in our county.”

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Yet other supervisors said they were angry that Baker, hired after a statewide search for a new chief administrator, didn’t stick around to help fix the problems he pointed out.

“For him not to hang in there a while and talk to board members about his concerns and see whether there was any support for what he was saying is very frustrating,” Supervisor Judy Mikels said. “He never gave us the opportunity to respond positively or negatively. He [just] makes assumptions in his letter that he would get no support.”

Around the Ventura County Government Center, employees expressed shock and disappointment about Baker’s resignation and his assessment of the county’s financial problems. The news traveled quickly throughout the center, creating a buzz among workers from probation to public works.

Ventura County Tax Collector Hal Pittman said Baker’s resignation letter was as well-read as a bestseller in his office Monday.

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“This has been a real bomb for us,” Pittman said. “Employees are very concerned, because this is very foreboding.”

Baker’s departure, Pittman said, leaves some unanswered questions about the severity of the financial problems and how those problems will affect county employees. Will there be layoffs? Will there be serious budget cuts?

Blistering Assessment

Though Pittman was disappointed by Baker’s sudden departure, he said he was confident of the supervisors’ ability to find a replacement and address the fiscal concerns.

“It’s time for all of us to get to work and solve some of these problems,” Pittman said. “We need to come together and work as a family, and none of the members can be dysfunctional.”

Baker’s letter provides a blistering assessment of county government, characterizes its problems as overwhelming and concludes that the county is approaching “financial chaos.”

He blasts the county for wanting to continue “business as usual.” And he says there is an apparent state of denial about those problems, one exacerbated by an attitude that money will magically appear and everything will be OK.

Baker was especially critical of the county’s use of Proposition 172, a half-cent sales tax initiative approved by state voters in 1993 to boost public safety funding.

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“Over time, while it guarantees rich resources for public safety, it does so at the expense of other community programs and non-safety employees,” Baker wrote. “The balance of services over time will be negative if not altered.”

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That view is shared by some at the government center. Glenn Derosset, a engineer with the Public Works Agency, said the county’s mental health blunders, as well as Proposition 172, have left departments cash-strapped.

“We believe that the sheriff and law enforcement have all the money, and the rest of the departments are left scrambling,” he said. “Our staffs are getting smaller and we’re working twice as many hours.”

Local officials in 1995 agreed that public safety departments would get all the Proposition 172 proceeds in addition to not having their regular budgets reduced. Last year, the tax generated $40 million in Ventura County.

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Sheriff Bob Brooks said Baker’s conclusions are off target and apparently based on erroneous information that the sales tax initiative siphons money away from non-public-safety departments.

Moreover, Brooks said if Baker wanted to learn firsthand about law enforcement funding, all he had to do was ask. The sheriff said the new chief administrator never talked to him about his concerns.

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“It’s ludicrous,” Brooks said of the Proposition 172 assessment. “I’m amazed that he came to that conclusion without spending any [significant] time with board members or any of the principal public safety executives or elected officials.”

Dist. Atty. Michael Bradbury said Baker’s comments were made without a full understanding of Ventura County’s commitment to public safety. And he said perhaps the views were a reflection of his experience as chief administrator in San Joaquin County.

The crime rate is 114% higher in San Joaquin County than in Ventura County, Bradbury noted in a prepared statement. Ventura County also has less than half the violent crime of San Joaquin County, Bradbury added.

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“This means that San Joaquin County has over twice the rate of murders, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults,” Bradbury wrote. Proposition 172 “permitted local government to continue financing its first responsibility, public safety, without harming the funding of other non-public-safety agencies. Had the measure not been approved, General Fund agencies would have suffered significant budget cuts.”

Baker’s resignation letter also criticized the county’s Health Care Agency, which he said “is commonly known for withholding information, unresponsiveness, untimeliness, and a reluctance to place information in writing where greater accountability standards can be satisfied.” Health agency chief Pierre Durand was not available for comment.

Problems Downplayed

The letter also said that county government had suffered from a history of weak administrative control and leadership, which has prompted department heads to make “end runs” around the chief administrator and go directly to the Board of Supervisors for support and guidance.

Former Chief Administrator Richard Wittenberg, who now holds a similar job in Santa Clara County, said that was not the case during his tenure, noting that he was heavily involved in working with the board and guiding policy.

“The county of Ventura was looked upon as one of the best managed counties in California,” he said. “It’s my view that, as quickly as he resigned, it would be pretty difficult for someone to get a real sense of an organization as large as this in such a short time.”

At the county government center, many employees considered Baker’s assessment of a management and fiscal crisis overblown.

“That sounds awful drastic,” said Roxanne Bovitz, an administrative assistant in public works. “I feel we have really sound management. I’ve never seen any problems that would cause what he’s mentioning.

“I’m kind of wondering why it happened,” she added. “He hasn’t had enough time to become familiar with our county at all.”

Public works employee Al A. Echarren said his department hadn’t run into any administrative or financial crisis. He said he didn’t think Baker’s resignation signaled major problems for the county.

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“I don’t believe it’s going to affect my department’s operation--unless they can’t afford to pay us,” he said.

Supervisor Kathy Long said she was shocked by Baker’s sudden departure. She said she met with him before last week’s board meeting and that he gave no indication that he was displeased or contemplating such a move.

Long said that while Baker raised salient issues in his letter, none of those should have come as any surprise. She said board members tried to let him know during the recruitment process all the challenges he would face coming to Ventura County.

“Nobody, I believe, tried to blindside him,” Long said. “I don’t know, maybe he really got in there and just felt overwhelmed with it all. Since the early ‘90s, we’ve been cutting back and cutting back. Maybe now all that has surfaced to the point where it’s really hurting.”

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Times Community News reporter Tony Lystra contributed to this story.

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* OVERWHELMED

David Baker says county faces “overwhelming problems.” A1

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* TEXT OF LETTER: B6


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