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| At Issue / VICKI TORRES

Worker Bees Take 'Bold Steps' on County Contracting

September 09, 1998|VICKI TORRES

Purchasing procedures and contracting rules are usually not the stuff of high drama, unless bribes, kickbacks or conflicts of interest are involved. Sans the wrongdoing, the regulations can generate a blizzard of snores.

And so it would seem with another county report that is scheduled to be presented to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Sept. 22. Called "Bold Steps Forward," the report proposes a five-pronged effort to make the county more friendly to small businesses that want to sell goods and services to the vast county bureaucracy.

Lots of good ideas are contained in the report. Before eyelids slam all the way shut, here's a little tidbit about it that makes the report unique: It came from the grunts.

That's right, no big-shot administrator or politician stamped his or her ideas from the top down. The ideas came from the county's worker bees--contracting and purchasing agents who day in and day out saw what was happening and thought there must be a better way.

Among them is Richard Espinosa, a contract administrator with the county health department and veteran of 17 years with the county, who calls himself "one of the small fish."

The way Espinosa tells it, about five years ago he went to a vendor fair and met a handful of other county purchasing agents who got to comparing notes about their jobs. They discovered that each department had a different purchasing and contracting system. This jumble of procedures was frustrating to small-business owners, as well as to the county workers who felt they were forced to be inefficient.

"But as individuals, it's hard to get things changed," Espinosa said. "It's quite a struggle to be heard."

The group began reaching out to contracting agents in other departments, Espinosa said. They created the Los Angeles County Contracting and Purchasing Council. But they ran into trouble from the get-go with some supervisors and administrators who demanded to know who had given the group permission to meet in the first place and who had authorized them to review the county's procedures.

"We were just operating on the simple premise that this is the right thing to do," he said. "Somebody's got to do it; why not us?"

Along the way they were laughed at a few times, Espinosa said, by some higher-ups who told them that their ideas were farfetched, that the county departments would never agree on one system and that they were wasting their time.

After three years of work, they came up with a set of recommendations but were told that no one would take them seriously because they were "just a bunch of nobodies," Espinosa said.

"That kind of hurt," he said. "But in spite of that, it kind of lit the fire."

They reached out again--this time to Supervisor Don Knabe, who had campaigned for contracting reform, and to the small-business community. By October 1997, with the help of a small-business advisory board, the group persuaded the Board of Supervisors to create the county Office of Small Business.

That new office immediately put into force one of the council's main recommendations: that the county have a central place to get information on all county contracts available for bid. The county's office of small business, headed by Edna Bruce, maintains a Web site (http://www.laosb.org) where contracts larger than $25,000 are posted. Meanwhile, Bruce's office has become the official keeper of the council's ideas, most contained in the report.

The report has five main themes:

* Think "one county" and name an administrator to oversee more than $3 billion in county contracts annually. Currently no one county staff person performs this job. The report also recommends that a county contracting handbook be created with boilerplate contract language and guidelines for county employees regarding purchasing. Every department now has its own contract language and forms.

* Improve and standardize processes, including assigning a small-business coordinator in each county department and devising a tracking and monitoring system for all county contracts and purchases. The county lacks a system to keep track of how it is doing overall in contracting.

* Strengthen outreach and marketing by targeting small businesses and creating informative "how to" packages.

* Open up the playing field, which includes, among other suggestions, subdividing projects to give access to small business whenever feasible and encouraging or requiring subcontracting to small businesses.

* Educate and train county staff. Some county departments' last employee-training sessions on contracting were held in 1984.

The recommendations may seem a little pie-in-the-sky because there are no cost figures associated with them. And they are a little like a wish list from workers who have happily devised the contracting system of their dreams.

Still, Bruce, executive director of the Los Angeles County Office of Small Business, believes that some of the recommendations won't take much new money because the county has to operate anyway--it's just a question of how that system functions.

When the report goes before the board in about two weeks, Bruce and other administrators will present it. Espinosa and the other little fish will be busy at work.

Nonetheless, Espinosa said he's proud of the report that more than 35 dedicated county employees labored over during lunch hours, after work and on weekends for years.

"I think our report could stand up to the reports the county spends thousands of dollars for consultants to do," he said. "We did this on our own time with no charge to the county."

*

Times staff writer Vicki Torres can be reached at (213) 237-6553 or at vicki.torres@latimes.com.

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