Eddy S. Tanaka, the veteran chief of Los Angeles County's mammoth welfare system, is planning to retire, prompting fears that one of the county's largest bureaucracies will be thrown into further turmoil during a time of fiscal crisis and low morale.
The highly respected Tanaka disclosed in an interview that he is working with county officials on a transition plan so that new management will be in place at the Department of Public Social Services by the time he leaves office. Tanaka, 62, has set a departure date of July 1, or whenever the department's proposed $3-billion budget for the next fiscal year is approved by the Board of Supervisors.
Even with a few months' notice, however, some county officials said Tanaka's departure after 16 years at the helm will leave a leadership void as the department continues to battle an unprecedented fiscal crisis.
As head of the nation's second-largest locally run welfare program, Tanaka has been an outspoken opponent of Republican-led federal welfare reform proposals and their potentially devastating impact on entitlement programs for the poor and homeless. Such proposals, and some Democratic responses, could shift billions of dollars in welfare costs to local governments.
"I think it is a great loss," said county Chief Administrative Officer Sally Reed. "It is a loss of someone who is a real institution and a real class act. He has done a real top-notch job."
Tanaka has spent 38 years in county service, starting as a social worker trainee in 1958, with later stints in the assessor's office and the chief administrative office. He returned to the social services department as chief deputy at the request of then-Director Keith Comrie in 1977, became acting director in 1979 and director in 1980.
"From everything I've seen, to work that controversial a job for that long, he had to be excellent," said Comrie, who is now the city of Los Angeles' top administrator. "They will be losing a person who can see immediately the problems with proposals that are being made, the variety of issues that will come out of them and how to respond to those issues. When you lose that kind of institutional knowledge and experience, you lose an awful lot."
Tanaka said he had been thinking of retiring for some time, which Reed and other county officials confirmed. He made the announcement of his retirement at a management meeting Thursday, and said it was not the result of last summer's bruising budget battles and other recent problems.
The announcement, however, came just two days after county supervisors approved a controversial plan to slash general relief benefits to 90,000 of the county's poorest residents by more than 25%, from $285 a month to $212. During last summer's budget crisis, Tanaka was said to be greatly upset over having to authorize sending layoff notices to 1,800 of his employees. Just days before the pink slips were to take effect, the department got a reprieve and the employees were allowed to stay.
Tanaka said in that he is retiring because he wants to spend more time with his family, especially twin grandchildren who are on the way, and because it is simply time to go.
"Thirty-eight years is a whole lot of time," he said. "I took over a year after Proposition 13, so it's been tough for 16 years, quite frankly. It's been a rough haul. I don't see it getting any easier."
In recent years, Tanaka said, the county's welfare department has been hamstrung by staff and budget reductions that have caused a host of other problems, including long delays at welfare offices that at times have sparked violent incidents, and hurried--and harried--staffers who have made mistakes in how much money recipients deserve and whether they are even eligible for aid. "We do have error rates that continue to increase," he said. "I firmly believe we just don't have the [ability] to do things timely and, in many situations, accurately."
Overall, Tanaka said, the department needs about 14,000 employees--4,000 more than it has--to do its job effectively.
State officials joined those saying Tanaka will be missed.
"He has very competently run the biggest [welfare] department in the state, one that is bigger than many other states'," said Charlie Marvin, the state Department of Social Services liaison to the 58 county welfare departments.