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L.A. County Picks New Chief Administrator

August 21, 1996|JEFFREY L. RABIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After months of searching for someone to run the nation's largest county government, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors settled Tuesday on David E. Janssen, a politically savvy bureaucrat with experience dealing with tough economic times.

Janssen's generally positive reviews as chief administrative officer of San Diego County, his open style of leadership and his close political connections in Sacramento were key factors in his selection for the post, supervisors said.

He will oversee a troubled $12.2-billion budget that provides vital law enforcement, criminal justice, health care, welfare and other services to millions of county residents. Janssen must also help restructure the county's vast public health system and adapt to the new realities dictated by sweeping welfare reform that will leave the county with the primary responsibility to provide for the poor.

But his biggest challenge as chief administrative officer may be working with the five supervisors, who have conflicting ideas about how the county should be run and are often more concerned about protecting their districts than the county as a whole.

"It's a significant challenge, but I am looking forward to taking it on," Janssen said in an interview. "They were obviously looking for somebody with experience and knowledge in California local government because of the complexity and the problems."

Even though the supervisors unanimously said Janssen was the right choice for the job, there was substantial sentiment to pick interim chief administrative officer Sandra Davis. She steadfastly refused to take the $180,134-a-year post because of personal considerations.

On Monday the supervisors met privately with Davis, but they could not persuade her to take the job. Davis said she would remain in the No. 2 position. "My intent is definitely to stay here . . . to provide leadership and guidance," she said.

Board Chairman Mike Antonovich, who made no secret of the fact that Davis was his preferred candidate, said the board reached a consensus on Janssen because of his experience in San Diego and in Sacramento, where he served in the administration of former Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr.

Supervisor Deane Dana said that Davis, a longtime county official, had also been his first choice. "Sandy was just not able to accept it, not in the near future," he said. "The board had to make a decision."

Janssen will bring a fresh face to Los Angeles County government when he takes over next week, scarcely three months after Sally Reed, a tough-talking, fiscally conservative Republican, resigned in frustration to join the administration of Gov. Pete Wilson.

Like Reed, Janssen will be an outsider when he arrives at his wood-paneled suite of offices on the seventh floor of the county Hall of Administration. But he is said to display a greater sense of political acumen.

It took the supervisors a substantial amount of time to select Janssen, 51, whose dry sense of humor belies his record as a tough hands-on administrator.

"We do have to face some serious financial problems," said Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, adding that she believes Janssen will tell it like it is and give the board the hard facts about the county's budget troubles.

Janssen, who ran San Diego County from April 1992 to March of this year and helped guide it through the depths of the worst recession since the Depression, said he isn't underestimating the financial problems facing Los Angeles County.

In San Diego, Janssen said, he made every effort to be inclusive about the way decisions were made to cut the budget.

"The magnitude of the budget in Los Angeles is obviously greater than anywhere else. . . . The county has to live within its budget," he said. "The challenge is how you balance the budget with the least service impact."

Janssen said the county must be actively involved in decisions at the state level on how the sweeping welfare reform bill passed by Congress is put into effect in California. "We have to be in Sacramento at the table with the state when they make the decision," he said.

As the federal and state governments pass more responsibility--but not financial resources--to counties to provide services to the poor, Janssen said, "Local government is where the action is going to be in this country."

It remains to be seen how well Janssen will mesh with what he described as the "strong, aggressive, dynamic" board members who will be his bosses.

During the past two years his immediate predecessor, Reed, clashed often with the supervisors over the depth of the county's worst-ever fiscal crisis and the tough medicine of program cuts she felt was necessary to stabilize its finances.

Ron Roberts, chairman of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, said Janssen will tell the supervisors the consequences of potential actions and "clearly understands we are elected to make the ultimate decision."

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