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County Moving Too Slowly on Needed Change

A year after receiving a citizen oversight group's analysis, the Board of Supervisors has yet to respond to suggested administrative reforms.

September 28, 1997|MARY ANN SCHULTE and WILLIAM MITCHELL | Mary Ann Schulte of Huntington Beach and William Mitchell of Irvine served as chair and vice chair respectively of the Government Practices Oversight Committee

A year ago, a diverse committee of Orange County citizens issued a comprehensive, analytical report that examined government in Orange County, primarily county government. This group of knowledgeable volunteers, the Government Practices Oversight Committee, had spent the previous 18 months compiling data, reviewing government operations and budgets, conducting focus groups with both county employees and users of county services, surveying the public and evaluating options for change. The committee's report contained 127 specific findings and recommendations. We delivered the report a year ago to the Board of Supervisors and merely asked the board to read the report, consider its recommendations and provide a response.

As with most citizen reports delivered to the board, ours was treated with silence. The board's and CEO's inaction can only increase Orange County residents' natural cynicism about the county and its leaders--a cynicism that seems to grow deeper even as the county seeks to get back on its financial footing.

Given the history of citizen input ignored, ample and consistent, and this frequently fed cynicism why did our committee expect anything different? Well, we honestly thought, after the county lost $1.6 billion, it was time for the county to admit that it didn't have all the answers (it usually acted as if it did). In the fallout of the bankruptcy, the largest of its kind in the history of the United States, the consensus was that county government, designed 90 years ago for rural concerns, was no longer suited for a modern suburban area.

The drum beat, clear and resonating, was "it's time for meaningful change." Our committee was appointed by the board in February 1995 to provide direction for such change. The report we issued provides that direction.

How has the county done on some of our key suggestions? We offer this report card on the progress toward addressing several important recommendations:

Contract Reform. Before a large project comes before the board, we suggested that the board stop the archaic practice of allowing one supervisor to choose a single contractor from a "slate" of three or five forwarded to them by county staff. Instead, we proposed, as have many others, establishing a system that ranks all firms based on qualifications. Doing so would lessen the influence of lobbying and allow for a level playing field for all bidding firms. This new system would be in conformity with current practices of federal, state, and practically every other major government entity, but no change seems to have occurred. GRADE: F.

Strategic Missions. We recommended that the board adopt a long-range vision for the county that reflected its core businesses and competencies. It has moved in this direction by having held board retreats to prioritize goals and by asking each department to prepare "business plans" for every county function. Unfortunately, many department plans are not finalized even as the county prepares to approve yet another multimillion-dollar budget. GRADE: B.

Performance Measures. We asked that the county adopt meaningful measurements that tell the board and the public how effectively the county spends taxpayer dollars. Cities throughout the region adopt similar benchmarks in their annual budgets, but the county refuses to do so. Former Supervisor Marian Bergeson often asked department heads at budget time how they know that their program is doing an effective job. Only a handful ever responded with concrete measurements of performance, and even those responses were never included in public budget documents. GRADE: D.

Making a Simpler, Better Budget. We joined the League of Women Voters and other county watchers in criticizing the form and readability of the county budget. We even developed an alternative "people's budget" called the Fact Book as an example for county budgeteers to follow. Despite many accolades, the Fact Book is now outdated and dusty, a casualty of the county's unwillingness to change the tried and true, even when the tried and true is incomprehensible to the Board of Supervisors and to the taxpayer. GRADE: F.

Getting Out of the Municipal Service Delivery Business. We proposed that the county divest itself of small, unincorporated islands and the city-like services that these islands require. The CEO established a city-county task force to help achieve this goal; meetings are continuing, but little action has resulted. GRADE: B-.

Remaining Recommendations. The board directed the CEO to respond to the committee's work "in a timely manner" almost a year ago. The CEO's office commenced work on responding to the 127 suggestions point by point. But that was last September. We received a preliminary response only last week. GRADE: C-.

Giving grades like these isn't easy. Our committee's effort led us to respect and admire the many men and women who work for and lead the county. But the old adage about not seeing the forest for the trees applies here. Our county leaders need to turn around residents by refocusing on the basic task of governance--effective, efficient service delivery that sells itself without expensive PR or schmoozing Wall Street.

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