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Well-Timed Report Could Help County : It Calls for Fundamental Reform of Local Government

August 13, 1995

The Orange County Grand Jury last week made some recommendations for improvements in the operations of county government that reinforced many good ideas that have been in circulation since the bankruptcy.

These proposals deserve serious consideration. But also this summer, a long-range comparative look at overall government budgeting and costs has arrived just as the county is looking for ways out of the financial dilemma. It raises important questions about the public's intrinsic relationship with those spending public dollars, and quite separately from the grand jury report, merits close attention.

The county won't find the solution to bankruptcy within the 164 pages of the "Report to Partnership 2010" by the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College. But this look at efficiency and effectiveness in government is valuable as much as anything for its infectious commitment to fundamental reform. Some findings surfaced last spring, and now the final report has appeared as the county combs its many public agencies looking for dollars.

The report pays attention to basics. For example, it observes how difficult it is to read even ordinary financial documents. We have seen how important this is in recent days as partisans have made conflicting statements about the actual financial resources of, say, the Orange County Transportation Authority.

The report also finds a lack of common criteria in Orange County for measuring government performance. It is difficult, say researchers, to identify such things as the number of employees and their salaries and benefits. If the report accomplishes nothing else but to "open up budget processes to greater public involvement" as it suggests, it would make a significant contribution.

The report also reached the conclusion that at the county level, there were deficiencies in the flow of information to supervisors. It is one thing for supervisors to be asleep at the switch; it is another for them to be victims of obfuscation. We have learned the hard way from the experience of bankruptcy what it means to have supervisors who are not on top of things.

The report complains in general about a lack of clear budget and financial reporting, and observes that while the county provided plenty of information to the Rose Institute, it was hard to make sense of it. The recommendation for improved "decision-making information" for county officials has been echoed by others involved in the assessment of the bankruptcy, including former county Chief Executive Officer William J. Popejoy and a state auditor's report. A few thousand words to the wise should be sufficient.

Moreover, the report's focus on salaries in the public sector merits attention. The report allows that county employees deserve "adequate and fair compensation," but notes that supervisors and taxpayers need clearer information on how much is being spent, and how that compares to spending in the private sector.

There is other food for thought in the report's various charts that will, at the very least, arm citizens with good questions about the cost of their government. For example, experience might suggest why Laguna Beach pays twice as much per capita for fire services as Huntington Beach, but some residents may wonder why per capita planning expenditures in Los Alamitos are more than twice that of Brea.

This report is likely to get people thinking about the need to bring government from an earlier era into line with modern times. If that happens, it will provide an enduring service.

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