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Baker Spells Out Reasons for Quitting as County Administrator

Nov. 27, 1999

Board of Supervisors

Ventura County

Dear Board Members,

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As you know, I started with Ventura County on Nov. 22, 1999. I was honored to be chosen and excited about doing good things for the county and the community it serves as your Chief Administrative Officer.

If you’ll recall, prior to my appointment, we only had one meeting together. It was your interview of me. I had always expected further meetings and the opportunity to interview you as a group and individually. The management recruiter commenced discussion of contract terms at your direction. Then, the media ran with the story and put both the Ventura and San Joaquin boards, as well as myself, in an awkward position.

As an applicant from the outside, I did much homework. My goal was to be living proof of your wisdom in the hiring decision despite minimal contact. It was obvious that the county was facing many major challenges with difficult-to-meet expectations from the community and inadequate resources. Despite this, I felt I could make a solid contribution through the position of CAO.

Between the time of appointment and actual commencement, I redoubled my research, learned more, and formulated questions and indices in my mind to quickly assess the current state of the county. I hit the ground running in getting into key issues.

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I have now had the opportunity to meet with a broad cross-section of department heads, CAO staff, several employees, and the general manager of the largest union. Board contact has been minimal and issue driven.

From this initial assessment, the problems are overwhelming and there is near financial chaos. Ventura County is not what it was represented to be and the depth of the problems fiscally and organizationally were apparently unknown. The integrity, courageous course of action is to tell you forthrightly exactly what you need to know. From an outsider’s perspective these major observations are made:

* There had been a history of weak central administrative control, management and leadership. This has fostered routine end runs around the CAO, weak planning and fiscal analysis, and the buildup of board staff for support and informational survival in a fast-paced political environment.

* The CAO ordinance and daily functioning of the position are too weak to be effective enough to tackle the fiscal threats and shape the opportunities for the county. This encourages business by lobbying, rather than solid business analysis and prudent public policy.

* The auditor has stated there is a cash flow problem that the organization is not aware of or is not addressing. He expressed concern about having the cash to “meet payroll.” This is an alarming, irresponsible situation, if true. It is not evident in the county’s most recent tax anticipation borrowing official statement for which the auditor, rather than the CAO is responsible.

* CAO staff have not been kept sufficiently in the information coordination loop and spend too much time reacting to departmental initiative, rather than acting on issues and developing strategic plans for board consideration in conquering community problems.

* There is insufficient budget staff and fiscal expertise in the CAO to provide the strong central budget support the board deserves and the county requires. Concurrently, the auditor’s office plays too much of a policy role, rather than an accounting role.

* The CAO staff has insufficient knowledge about the revenue side of the county’s finances and are subject to information filtering from the auditor, health care services and public safety departments.

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* The Health Care Agency is commonly known for withholding information, unresponsiveness, untimeliness and a reluctance to place information in writing where greater accountability standards can be satisfied.

* Departmental board letters are not well written with reliable analysis in a timely fashion for appropriate review. The CAO and board are literally set up by departments with inadequate information and analysis with the county’s back against deadlines. And, this has been allowed to happen without performance consequences.

* Capital construction projects are not adequately financially planned for board review in advance of board action.

* Ongoing operational budget impacts appear to be undisclosed to the board in making multiyear strategic investments like a new Juvenile Justice Center.

* There is insufficient coordination and control in space planning issues with too much decentralized activity at the department levels.

* Because of staff inadequacies and departmental political maneuvering, the board’s policy role is blurred and board members take on individual projects out of communication with key staff (until there is an unresolved problem or a deadline) without the full board’s knowledge or blessing.

* There is too much reliance on the auditor for fiscal forecasting and debt financing.

* There are several millions set aside in budget designations and reserves without good organizational understanding about the necessity for such reserves adequately justified and communicated.

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* There is an apparent state of denial about the county’s fiscal position and some optimism that somehow the money will appear and everything will be OK.

* There is a lack of organizational will to force spending discipline.

* Department heads feel there “may” be financial problems which need to be addressed through impacts in areas other than their own. They take no ownership and few expressed an interest in teamwork in resolving the financial issues.

* The public safety ordinance (Proposition 172) presents a structural financial imbalance which is dramatic and ongoing. Over time, while it guarantees rich resources for public safety, it does so at the expense of other community programs and non-safety employees. The community politics in affecting change are acknowledged as treacherous. The balance of services over time will be negative if not altered.

* The county’s nonpublic safety department heads and employees vociferously argue against what is perceived as “gold plated” public safety without accountability for the use of funds, sound business practices and balance with the rest of county government.

* While on the one hand, there appears to be a systematic over-budgeting in departments because of the lack of willingness to delete substantial numbers of unfilled positions which are budgeted. On the other hand, salary increases are not budgeted and departments are told to absorb negotiated salary and benefit increases. Both trends are unrealistic and encourage dysfunctional budget game playing.

* There is not a atmosphere where good employees feel comfortable to give their best and speak out about the need for better performance throughout the county. They fear for their livelihood.

* The county’s financial story has no credibility with SEIU [Service Employees International Union] because of a long history of perceived budget game playing.

* You each know about the issues among yourselves and how you do and don’t work together.

I am not the right person for this job under these circumstances and with this organizational culture.

This is a painful admission. I love this area and had great excitement about serving the county. My wife and I resigned our former jobs and dedicated ourselves to relocation and success here. We don’t have jobs to which to return. Nevertheless, after this assessment, to continue would place me at odds with the board and with little support outside the Chief Administrative Office to transition the organization to different fiscal management and planning level.

I don’t see the organizational awareness and commitment to improve, to take on the issues and personalities needed, to impose the fiscal discipline required to turn the county around.

This is a county that wants to continue “business as usual.” However, far more is required for long-term success. A change agent can only have limited effectiveness, without broad awareness of the need for change and strong board and organizational support. Further, while I believe I know how to reform the organization, the organizational obstacles in this time of fiscal crisis and turmoil on the board are so great that I fear my personal drive to do better business and the arduousness of that goal would cost me my health and family stability. As an outsider, I would quickly come under attack, and division on the board would make my style of leadership an issue and dilute my effectiveness.

I resign the position of Chief Administrative Officer immediately.

I leave with sadness and disappointment. It is far better that I leave now after this internal assessment with such strong doubts about any meaningful success in this organizational climate.

As a board you have been kind to me. I have met many pleasant and dedicated employees. The senior staff in the CAO have been helpful, supportive and responsive.

The contract I signed in good faith with my external understanding of Ventura County’s situation specifies financial consideration for my service. It also calls for a two-month notice on my part.

I have not initiated any projects which require transition time and will have already left the area when you receive this.

The contract also specifies $15,000 for relocation and payment of salary and benefits for my service. Because of the circumstances, in exchange for my not providing you two months notice, I waive all relocation pay even though I have already spent almost $2,000 and invested considerable time and emotional energy in making the move. Additionally, I waive all salary and benefits for the week I worked. A travel claim was submitted for mileage from Lodi to Monterey on Oct. 27 to attend a health care briefing while I took a vacation day from San Joaquin County. I waive this also, although someone needs to advise [County Counsel] Jim McBride that the claim should be canceled and no payroll check issued at my request. The result of these waivers is that I have not accepted any compensation whatsoever for my time with Ventura County.

I recognize this will hit you each hard. I am sorry. I truly wanted this to work. The scope and depth of the fiscal and organizational crisis were not revealed in the hiring process. My wife and I are devastated.

My recommendation is that you return Bert [Bigler] to the position of Acting CAO. From there, it is recommended that you hire a consultant to study the organizational and fiscal issues with the goal of restructuring the Chief Administrative Officer position and redefine the Auditor’s role. This will allow future candidates to approach the position with a greater chance for success.

Strong consideration should be given to converting the position to a County Executive Officer position to provide the central administrative leadership needed. You should also have a full and candid analysis of Proposition 172, your ordinance, and all its ramifications.

If the board does not support the CEO concept, consider appointing an inside candidate. With a unified board wanting a successful CAO, an insider will not be the target that an outsider is in making the strategic changes needed.

In any event, I wish only good things for Ventura County and profoundly regret that I found the organizational environment not conducive to the changes I could contribute.

In conclusion, there are only six copies of this letter. Each board member has one and I have one. I will make another copy for my attorney if there are complications that county counsel needs to address, although I believe I’ve addressed all issues fairly.

It is anticipated there will be some media inquiry. My intent is to minimize media contact and refer such calls back to you. The best answer to inquiries is the truth. After internal assessment, I realized the job was not the right fit for the organization and me at this time. Regretfully, I left. I provided a report to the board with my candid and heartfelt observations and recommendations for the future. End of story.

This is the most painful professional decision I have ever made. It is honest, true to my ethical values and has taken more personal courage than I ever believed I had. It is in the mutual interest of Ventura County and myself. I hope each of you will use discretion and not say anything damaging about me. I don’t deserve that.

Best wishes always.

Sincerely,

David L. Baker


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