SANTA ANA — A funding compromise designed to avert a threatened shutdown of the county's courts fell apart Monday, raising the possibility that local judges will issue a court order requiring the county to give them more money.
The presiding judges of the county's six courthouses met for two hours Monday evening but adjourned without making a decision on the court order, which would set the stage for a constitutional confrontation, with statewide implications, between county government and the trial courts.
Theodore E. Millard, presiding judge of Orange County Superior Court, said he and his colleagues remain hopeful that the funding crisis can be resolved through further negotiations and without the lengthy court fight that would be almost certainly be triggered by a judicial order to the Board of Supervisors.
But he also stressed that in his view the issuance of a court order would not rule out the possibility of yet more talks, perhaps with the help of an outside mediator.
"Some people think [the order] would be the end of negotiation. But it just might be the beginning of a more earnest round of negotiations," Millard said. "I hope it would not be the end of a constructive dialogue."
But Board of Supervisors Chairman William G. Steiner, who has led the county's negotiating team since talks began last month, expressed skepticism that more meetings could bridge the substantial differences between the two sides.
"Thanks, but no thanks," said Steiner, who became involved in the negotiations after talks conducted by county staffers deadlocked earlier this year. "At this point, I think the issue should go back to the staff level."
The collapse of the funding compromise comes exactly one week after negotiators announced a tentative settlement that the full Board of Supervisors was scheduled to consider today.
Late last week, after the county publicly revealed details of the compromise, the judges began to back away from the deal, saying that some of points in the proposal being sent to the full Board of Supervisors were different from what had been agreed to in the negotiations. They sought some changes and suggested another round of negotiations Monday morning.
But Steiner and Supervisor Thomas W. Wilson, who also participated in the negotiations with the judiciary, met early Monday and decided to reject the judges' request for more talks and to remove the funding proposal from the agenda of today's board meeting.
"We were all hopeful that the county could avoid becoming a test case for the trial court funding issue," Wilson said. "But things have unraveled to the point that we don't think it's salvageable. I don't think another meeting is going to solve anything."
The funding problem stems largely from moves by the state Legislature in recent years to allocate less state money for court operations, and to shift more of the financial burden of running state courts to the counties. Orange County is not the only county chafing under the revamped funding formulas, but because of the recent bankruptcy it finds itself with less money than some counties to fill the funding gap.
The compromise that had been worked out would have provided the courts with $4.2 million in additional funding this year, plus up to $4.3 million more in case the courts could not cover salary expenses through the end of the fiscal year June 30.
The deal marked a compromise for both sides. The judges originally said $18.9 million was needed to prevent a mid-May shutdown of the courts. But County Chief Executive Officer Jan Mittermeier has questioned whether the courts need any additional funding.
On Friday, the judges sent Wilson and Steiner a letter listing six points in the supervisors' proposal that they said differed from what the parties agreed to during final negotiations.
The biggest bone of contention was the $4.3 million. The judges said the money should be available to cover court salaries as well as other "court obligations." The supervisors said the money should be available only for salaries.
"We had an agreement, and then they walked away from it," Millard charged. "The document they gave us does not reflect what we agreed to. It appears to me that they changed their minds."
As proof, Millard on Monday produced a photocopy of handwritten notes taken by a top county official during the talks. The notes state that the $4.3 million should be used to "meet the obligations of the courts and pay their salaries."
But Steiner and Wilson insisted that the judges are to blame for the impasse, because they sought amendments at the last minute. Steiner noted that earlier drafts of the proposal all referred only to covering salaries and that the judicial negotiators agreed to support the proposal as late as Thursday evening.
"It's a big smoke screen," Steiner said. "It would have been a tough sell to the rest of the board under any circumstances. But they really put a bullet through it with their 11th-hour additions."