Region can't fix key problems, official warns

Times Staff Writer

Just weeks away from retirement, Los Angeles County's top administrator offered a frank assessment Wednesday, saying that the major problems facing the region -- such as overcrowded jails, failing medical services, chronic homelessness -- are for the most part intractable.

"There isn't enough money in the world to solve those problems, and no one should be led to believe that they can," said David E. Janssen, chief administrative officer of the nation's largest county government.

As the Board of Supervisors prepares to select Janssen's successor in the coming weeks, the veteran administrator said the next executive would be wise to demand better ways to measure the performance of county programs.

The new executive should also be given more power, Janssen said. A stronger administrator -- whether appointed or elected -- with control of hiring and firing would create "clear lines of authority and accountability." His previous job as San Diego County's administrator had such a system.

Though he is proud of what he accomplished over a decade in the top post, Janssen said many good things happened despite a "very awkward" government structure in which the five elected supervisors wield both legislative and executive authority. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, the current chairman, recently floated the idea that the county shape a ballot initiative asking voters to create a strong executive, even though they have rejected it in the past.

Managing such a vast county government would be difficult even under the best circumstances: It employs more than 90,000 workers who serve a population of 10 million, with many programs disbursing state or federal funds to poor, elderly, homeless and needy residents. The county runs the nation's largest jail system, houses about 3,500 youths in detention camps and juvenile halls each day, provides child support services to 500,000 families, and treats more than 3 million outpatients a year.

Janssen, 61, is credited with restoring the county's fiscal health after years of budget shortfalls while wrangling 37 wayward departments to work together better. A trusted advisor to the occasionally divisive supervisors, Janssen balanced a $20-billion budget while the board wrestled with a dangerously mismanaged county hospital and growing problems in juvenile halls and probation camps.

The county's financial picture was bleak when Janssen took over in 1996, with a $90-million deficit and several years without salary increases to county employees.

"The organization at that time basically had no leadership," Janssen said of his office. The county administrator's "office was not providing the cohesion and guidance" that balancing the budget required. Instead, Janssen clamped down on expenditures, made conservative predictions, explained assumptions used to draft the budget and spent one-time funds on one-time costs.

The biggest financial hurdles still facing the county are a perennial shortfall in the health department and keeping up with the cost of retiree healthcare benefits, he said.

Janssen also labored to unify county departments and encourage collaboration, rather than the competition for funding that had existed before. Supervisors last spring approved a $100-million plan to combat homelessness -- there are roughly 90,000 homeless people countywide, many of whom live on skid row just south of the downtown civic center -- with the help of social services, the health department, Children and Family Services, the Sheriff's Department and other county agencies. That kind of information sharing was at first a tough sell in a county once characterized by territoriality and bureaucratic obfuscation.

A bureaucracy, Janssen said, tends "to hoard information and to provide only that which supports its professed opinion, with a somewhat skeptical eye on elected officials." His job, he said, was to help elected officials "make the best decision."

"Government needs to be as open and as transparent as possible," said Janssen, sipping from a Superman mug in his 7th floor office at the county Hall of Administration.

That diplomatic approach charmed the board, county officials agree, as Janssen offered informed but neutral counsel over the years, navigated opposing ideologies and avoided clashing with supervisors in public. Roundly praised by the supervisors, Janssen says his successor must relate to and respect each board member but not undermine their authority.

That's not to say Janssen has no opinions; the registered Democrat left the top administrative job in San Diego County when supervisors there leaned too far right for his taste. "You have to work hard to be objective," he said.

The job description sent to potential candidates for the county administrative post is enough to scare away any applicant. It suggests that the administrator would need to improve the healthcare system, upgrade probation services, manage a fiscal strategy, work with the city of Los Angeles to develop Grand Avenue, and draft a plan to combat homelessness -- among other duties.

The supervisors are scheduled to interview five finalists for Janssen's job Monday. They are county Human Resources head Michael Henry; county Treasurer and Tax Collector Mark Saladino; Sandra Vargas, a county administrator from Hennepin County, Minn., which includes Minneapolis; and two other candidates, one from Southern California and the other from Florida.

Janssen has already stripped most of his plaques and pictures from the office walls, but he still can't believe he's leaving. Jan. 16 is his last day on the job

He plans to leave his downtown apartment and move with his wife, Jeannie, to Poway, in San Diego County. Though he's adamant that he doesn't want another full-time job, Janssen is considering teaching at USC, UCLA or San Diego State, joining a state task force on retiree health or consulting.


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