Los Angeles County supervisors took the unusual step Tuesday of curtailing the power of their chief executive, William T Fujioka, who has struggled to overcome breakdowns in child protective services that contributed to tragic instances of harm and even death for youths.
Supervisors Michael D. Antonovich, Gloria Molina and Zev Yaroslavsky voted to place the Department of Children and Family Services, as well as the troubled Probation Department, under direct oversight of the county board. Supervisors Don Knabe and Mark Ridley-Thomas opposed the move.
Tuesday actions put board members at the helm of chronically hard-to-manage agencies and reignited a larger debate about how best to organize the nation’s largest local government. Just four years ago, Fujioka was hired and given an expanded budget and increased administrative powers, ostensibly so that supervisors could focus on big picture concerns.
But recently supervisors have complained that the chief executive has used his office to hinder their ability to correct problems in the two departments by tightly controlling the flow of information to board members. They also accused Fujioka of refusing to follow their orders. “We can’t let bureaucrats get in the way of us doing our job,” Antonovich said.
Fujioka defended his record in a statement to The Times, saying that his office improved the quality of services and never prevented the release of information to the board.
“Ask a fair sampling of department heads,” Fujioka said. “Most have said we have greatly improved the communication, collaboration and efficacy of the organization, which for decades operated in silos.”
Knabe and Ridley-Thomas echoed his remarks, saying the move by the board majority would muddle lines of authority and slow decision-making. “I’m not yet convinced that replacing one boss with five bosses is better,” Knabe said.
The children and family services agency, which administers foster care, and the Probation Department, which handles juvenile delinquents, have both been plagued by problems during Fujioka’s tenure.
Many of the issues at the Probation Department predate Fujioka’s hiring, and the agency has been under the oversight of the U.S. Department of Justice for many years because of civil rights violations. But the supervisors say little progress has been made in addressing those concerns in recent years and the department is now threatened by a possible federal takeover.
Problems at the children and family agency surfaced more recently following disclosures in The Times that children died of mistreatment despite having come under the attention of county social workers. Some progress has been made in correcting systematic breakdowns that contributed to the fatalities. And social workers praised Fujioka again Tuesday for hastening improvements since the ouster of director Trish Ploehn last year.
But other problems — including a backlog of child abuse investigations that once included more than 14,000 children — erupted under his watch.
Fujioka said both troubled agencies “have begun to turn around — we put the right people and implementation plans in place — but institutional change of that magnitude takes a long time, even when everybody recognizes the urgency and what’s at stake.”
As chief executive, Fujioka was given millions of dollars to hire experts to directly supervise department heads. His staff overflowed from the large seventh floor executive suite at the county Hall of Administration. At one point, some supervisors intended to give Fujioka even more power, including asking voters to change the county’s charter so the chief executive could hire and fire department heads.
Antonovich argued against the new bureaucratic layer from the start. He said it added too little value and would likely become an impediment to progress. That view gradually gained board support.
A 2008 study also helped erode enthusiasm for a more powerful chief executive to manage sprawling county agencies. The study said that some staffers reported spending a lot of time in meetings, but that it was hard to break through bureaucratic layers and bring important issues to top decision-makers.
Plans to ask voters to further empower the position stalled and the county has operated with an “interim governance structure” ever since.
With the board now beginning to roll back the chief executive model, Antonovich said he wants to cut Fujioka’s staff. “Yes, that issue is coming very shortly,” he said. “There have to be reductions.”