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Strength at the Top in O.C.

October 18, 1998

Orange County supervisors long have struggled to determine how best to do their jobs and to define just what tasks they should tackle. This month the five supervisors again showed that they don't have a final answer.

The Board of Supervisors offered a new three-year contract to the county executive officer, Jan Mittermeier. The discussion pulled back the curtain and showed the supervisors trying to keep as much power as possible without losing a capable administrator.

The supervisors decided to let Mittermeier continue hiring department heads but to give themselves the power to step in and get rid of those they don't like if four of the five agree. A proposal to further restrict Mittermeier's power met deserved failure. However, the debate touched off a public squabble and unfounded claims that changing one's mind and switching a vote signaled a lack of integrity.

Mittermeier has done a generally good job in a tough position. Supervisors Todd Spitzer and Tom Wilson have criticized her for not providing them with enough information on plans to convert El Toro to a civilian airport. Spitzer and Wilson oppose the airport, which the other three supervisors favor.

In the future, Mittermeier should be more open with information, both to the supervisors and to the public. It too often is difficult to get answers from county staff, who refer questions to Mittermeier's office, which is not always quick to reply when it does so at all.

The county executive has a tough job of serving all five supervisors, especially when their positions clash, as with El Toro. But the job's difficulty is reflected in its salary, which is now $148,000 and will soon rise to $160,000.

Mittermeier does deserve credit for bringing the county's budget planning and long-range forecasting into the modern age. This year, for the first time, the county produced a five-year financial forecast. The blueprint was designed to identify revenues and match them with possible projects, from jails to social programs to courthouses. It received a notable boost from Chapman University economists, a valuable resource for the county.

Budgeting long has been a priority for the office now headed by Mittermeier. In 1967, Robert E. Thomas became the first person to fill the new job, then called county administrative officer. The county's population was around 1 million, its budget was in the $300-million to $400-million range, and the supervisors' staffs were not as large as now.

In 1983, a management audit recommended making Thomas' job stronger, akin to a chief of staff with hiring and firing power. But supervisors were unwilling to yield power, though they proclaimed the need for "corporate-style management" for a growing county. Through the years, the supervisors and their staffs dealt directly with department heads, sometimes causing duplication of effort, sometimes resulting in contradictory orders. When the elected county treasurer bet the wrong way on interest rates and plunged the county into bankruptcy in 1994, supervisors realized it was time for an overhaul.

Again a study was done. Again a strong executive was recommended. This time the advice was heeded. Unfortunately, the supervisors recently seemed ready to turn back the clock. They did change Mittermeier's title from chief executive officer to county executive officer, but that means little. What counts is the job done by the person with the title and the authority given to her. In a county with a population growing toward 3 million and a budget over $3 billion, the supervisors can't expect to be able to manage all the departments themselves, hiring and firing managers they don't like. They need to determine policy and let the county executive carry it out. The supervisors will have the final say: an executive who consistently hires the wrong people won't last long.

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