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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS | ANALYSIS

County's Crisis Gives Way to Compromise

Administration: Hufford has guided Board of Supervisors through a year of important changes.

November 26, 2000|DARYL KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the year since chief executive David Baker's sudden decision to flee Ventura County government, the Board of Supervisors has acted as he doubted it ever would--with uncommon unanimity to address the "overwhelming problems" Baker laid out in his scathing letter of resignation.

Just last week, almost exactly 12 months after a frustrated Baker resigned, supervisors moved, as Baker recommended, to change the unwieldy nature of the county's governmental structure.

The board--divided for years before Baker came and went after only four days on the job--unanimously agreed Tuesday to strengthen the role of the county's top administrator and weaken its elected auditor.

At the same time, as embattled Auditor-Controller Tom Mahon resigned at midterm Monday, supervisors began to seriously consider putting his job on the ballot in 2002 to ask voters if they want the elected post to be appointive. That is another reform Baker recommended.

And, despite an instinctive reluctance to take on the county's powerful sheriff and district attorney, the supervisors said last week that they would attempt to solve a key budget problem by looking again at how the county implements Proposition 172, because the current ordinance enriches public safety at the expense of other community programs. Baker called it "a financial imbalance which is dramatic and ongoing."

"David Baker shook the foundations of this county, and that was a good thing," Dist. Atty. Michael Bradbury said. "He got the public's attention. And sometimes if the public is not paying attention, government tends not to work as well as it should."

Baker's greatest contribution to Ventura County, however, may have been his decision to leave, since his departure brought an accomplished hired gun to town.

Within a month of Baker's exit, a humiliated but united Board of Supervisors hired Harry Hufford, the former top manager in the nation's largest county, Los Angeles--a cheerful, wily and tough veteran of 30 years in county government.

"I've herded horses and I've herded cattle, and believe me, the toughest critters to herd are cats. And Harry has been able to do that," said Bradbury, an Ojai cowboy himself. "The cats I'm talking about are the Board of Supervisors."

Hufford Credited for Turnaround

Board members all agree on one thing--that Hufford led Ventura County through a financial and leadership crisis, not Baker. Most of them don't think much of Baker. But they all believe in cool-hand Harry.

Supervisor John Flynn, the most independent board member, gave a 15-minute speech Tuesday protesting reforms that gave the chief administrator power to hire and fire department heads, transferred many budgetary duties from the auditor to the administrator and gave him permission to hire a chief financial officer.

Flynn said the ordinance funneled too much power into one person's hands. But in the end, he made the vote unanimous. "I did it for unity on the board," Flynn said, "and because I have great respect for Harry. He wrote it."

As one top county official cracked last week, it's not like Hufford is swimming in the turbulent waters of county government, but walking on them.

Hufford, initially hired for seven months and now contracted for 16, has a slightly different slant on what is coming down at the Ventura County Hall of Administration.

He said Baker deserves some credit for recognizing problems and stating them clearly, but that he should not have cut and run.

"His blueprint was OK," Hufford said. "But you should put your shoulder to the wheel and address the problems yourself."

Hufford also notes the "pretty severe price" the county has paid for the negative publicity, including a close watch by queasy bond-rating firms. Supervisors Flynn and Kathy Long, originally facing nominal opposition, were forced into tough reelection campaigns after the Baker scandal broke. Supervisor Judy Mikels was also hurt in her failed run for state Senate, since county problems were fodder for her opponent.

Lost in the rhetoric sometimes, Hufford said, is the way supervisors have worked together on important issues Baker did not address, such as their opposition to Community Memorial Hospital's attempt to wrest $260 million in tobacco settlement money from the county.

"This is a work in progress," he said, "but the board has been terrific."

As for Baker, Hufford said the former administrator sent him a note last June after supervisors balanced the Ventura County budget and conceptually agreed to county government reform.

"He was complimenting me, and in effect saying this wasn't a job he was willing to do and attaboy Harry," Hufford said. "But my guess is he could have carried it out."

Baker, comfortably rehired as the top manager in San Joaquin County, said last week that he admires the reforms achieved in Ventura County since his departure. But he doesn't second-guess himself for leaving.

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