Management Exodus Likened to Challenge of O.C. Bankruptcy

Times Staff Writers

Orange County's budget chief this week outlined a bleak future filled with funding cuts and disappearing services -- and then announced his retirement, becoming the seventh top county executive in two months to leave.

The departure of Chief Financial Officer Gary Burton highlights an exodus from government even as officials struggle with the worst financial crunch since the county declared bankruptcy in December 1994.

Since January, Orange County has lost its chief executive officer; directors of the Planning and Development Services Department, the Social Services Agency and Community Services Agency; the public defender; and the registrar of voters.

Most took advantage of a sweetened retirement package approved in December. Others left more abruptly, including former CEO Michael Schumacher, fired for his handling of a financial crisis at the planning department that led to the early retirement of former director Thomas B. Mathews.

At the same time, two new county supervisors took office, injecting more uncertainty into how government might be restructured in leaner times. The Board of Supervisors this week approved more than $100 million in cuts for the next fiscal year.

Burton, chief financial officer since 1996, was quick to say he wasn't abandoning ship.

He said that at age 57 and with 33 years of service with various county agencies, he wanted to do other things.

The search for new managers comes as public opinion of county government -- and its attractiveness as an employer -- is diminishing, said Fred Smoller, head of the Henley Social Science Research Center at Chapman University.

"You're competing with a small pool of talented managers, and usually the private sector wins because it can offer a lot more money and, in some ways, a lot less hassle," Smoller said. In government, "you're subject to public exposure and ridicule. They don't look like very attractive positions."

Board Chairman Tom Wilson said he's betting there are enough people to tackle the challenge. The county will look statewide to fill most of the posts; the CEO search will expand nationwide.

"It's not as bad as the bankruptcy, but it ranks right up there in terms of the challenges and [the] time it might take us to get back on our financial feet again," he said.

"I don't put credence in the [notion] that under hard times it's not fun anymore. New challenges invigorate me."

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