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Report criticizes county’s structure

Times Staff Writer

No one’s office in the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration has a sign saying, “The buck stops here.” Power is scattered throughout the bureaucracy, and it’s hard to credit any decision -- good or bad -- to one person.

Last year, the Board of Supervisors made an effort to change that by hiring the county’s first chief executive. But according to a report to be released today by a citizens watchdog group, many of the office’s intentions are unfulfilled.

County Chief Executive William T. Fujioka replaced a weaker county administrator, who also managed departments and reported to the five elected supervisors but lacked authority to hire and fire department heads and was not ultimately responsible for their success or failure.

However, a copy of the report released to The Times shows that so far:

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* Decisions have actually become tougher to make, and power is more diffuse. Aides to the supervisors have not relinquished control over the day-to-day affairs of county departments, thus expanding the number of bosses rather than reducing them.

* Modest improvements in some county operations over the last year cannot be linked to the new structure. “Clearly, the major benefits have been the increased collaboration” between departments, according to the supervisors’ Citizen’s Economy Efficiency Commission. “The commission, however, could not judge whether this collaboration could have been accomplished under the old structure.”

The commission recommended another status report of the new system in a year. Supervisors originally planned to ask voters to approve the empowered chief executive office this year, but they now say that will not happen until 2010 at the earliest.

“This improvement that we are trying to do does not just happen by edict,” said Fujioka, who started work last July. “The county is the ultimate ocean freighter, and you know how long it takes to turn around an ocean freighter.”

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In the meantime, Fujioka and the supervisors said they are optimistic they can make the new structure work.

For that to happen, the commission said, decisions would have to be streamlined.

The beefed-up chief executive staff -- hired at an annual cost of $1.6 million -- has created a new layer of management that has often made it more difficult for staffers to swiftly bring important projects and crises to the desks of top decision makers, the report said.

And the county has no shortage of crises needing urgent attention:

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A failing healthcare system has struggled to cover costs and deliver care appropriately, and the county has provided chronically substandard social services for the homeless, abused children and others.

The report described the Board of Supervisors and the staffs responsible for delivering those services as being filled with micromanagers. Little time is spent developing a broad vision to solve problems, the commission found.

“The new system,” Supervisor Gloria Molina said in an interview, “was supposed to free the supervisors up to think about the big policy questions. That is not happening yet.”

Instead, aides to the supervisors have joined aides to the chief executive in marathon meetings that focus on day-to-day operations.

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“There are many more meetings with many more participants, and the volume of e-mail is reaching nearly unmanageable levels,” the report said. “Paradoxically, there is a sense among [aides] and supervisors that they are now less informed than they were under the old structure.”

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who championed the new structure and still supports it, has likened it at times to the Kremlin. Fujioka recently found it necessary to issue a memorandum, saying it was OK for department heads to communicate with aides to the supervisors, especially on “hot issues.”

Yaroslavsky said, “We are going to work on it now so that six months from now, some of the issues raised in the report will be addressed.”

Still, many county officials remain hopeful that the new structure will work.

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A senior manager, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified out of fear that doing so might damage his relations with supervisors, said some aides wielded disproportionate control over day-to-day affairs in the old structure. He said they are now trying to sabotage the new system to gain it back.

Despite Yaroslavsky’s support of the structure, one of the report’s authors said the supervisor’s aides were more critical of the new system than those in any other supervisor’s office.

Additionally, some department heads said the new structure deserved credit for increasing collaboration among county offices.

Patricia S. Ploehn, director of the Department of Children and Family Services, said that collaboration improved delivery of mental health services for foster children.

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“Prior to the structure, you had my department that was the primary department and you had the Department of Mental Health,” she said. “While we were meeting and we were talking [under the old system], I don’t think we had the momentum we needed.”

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garrett.therolf@latimes.com


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