O.C. Faces a Wave of Trouble, but This Board Is Up to It

Tom Wilson is 5th District supervisor.

This month I took over as chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, a position all supervisors aspire to during their terms in office.

This year is shaping up to be one of the most challenging to come. As chairman, I need to provide the leadership necessary to see this county through what will undoubtedly be the biggest budget hurdle since the bankruptcy, to set an agenda for success at all levels and to exercise the vision necessary to lead with a steady hand.

The state faces an 18-month budget gap of nearly $35 billion; the county’s departments are looking for guidance; the registrar, the planning director, the director of social services and the public defender are all retiring; and tomorrow morning, the county executive officer’s termination is effective.

With both the planning department and CEO problems putting the county in the news, this was not an easy way to begin a new year.


That said, these are essential issues this board must respond to without delay in order to provide the kind of direction necessary for what is sure to be a complex year.

Everyone in Orange County deserves an efficient, well-functioning government. It is our responsibility to provide that. For this reason, the board has acted decisively.

Once the dire situation in the Planning and Development Services Department became known, the board established a team of auditors and managers to ferret out the problems, determine how they happened and offer solutions. This team has been working tirelessly, and we expect a report soon.

The root of the problem, however, did not take a team to figure out. Somewhere along the way, the oversight collapsed. Management had a job and it dropped the ball, and our safeguards failed.


And for that, the board was obligated to make critical personnel decisions, ultimately leading to the retirement of the planning director, the appointment of an interim director with a track record for problem solving, and the termination of the CEO. We need to ensure that this won’t happen again.

The decision to terminate the CEO was not based solely on the planning department breakdown, but on a series of issues over the last several months.

These issues culminated in a lack of oversight and control, combined with a hands-off management style, that the board felt would not bode well for the county as we come into this difficult year.

The fundamental structure of the county continues to be a work in progress, and the circumstances demand the strongest leadership and vision throughout the county organization, especially at the top.

Michael Schumacher provided balance and stability, which was crucial when he accepted the post of CEO in 2000. The county was still reeling from a financial catastrophe, we were in the midst of the El Toro battle, and everyone was divided. We needed a CEO who maintained a calm demeanor and who would take a paternal approach with departments and issues. The times have changed, and what is needed has changed.

It should be no surprise to anyone that bureaucracy innately has serious, fundamental problems with leadership and accountability. The county’s organizational changes that resulted from the bankruptcy were a good start in confronting such problems, but there is much more work to do.

And I believe this board is up to the task. It’s time to get back to business. This is a key message in my State of the County address, which I will be delivering this week and one that we all need to take to heart.

The planning department developed serious problems. Unfortunately, management chose to either ignore or disguise them. We must have guaranteed checks and balances. These kinds of problems can be avoided, but it will take some streamlining, some bureaucracy busting and possibly some disciplinary actions.


We cannot be afraid to take action, but we must feel confident in our decisions. This board, even when at its most divisive, has been diligent in attacking countywide problems with an informative, methodical approach. This approach will continue and will clear the way for a leaner, more effective government.

We must ensure that all departments and their staff have the tools they need to be successful -- to provide the services each of us depend on.

Our staff is talented and hard-working, and they deserve the board’s unswerving commitment and vision in an effort to empower them for optimal success with minimal investment.

These are but a few of the challenges we are facing as we begin this year. But don’t forget, challenges provide opportunities -- the strongest steel always comes from the hottest fire.