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Wanted: A County CEO, Not Too Hard or Soft

O.C.'s last executive was conciliatory, but the one before him was aggressive. Supervisors are looking for someone in between.

January 24, 2003|Jean O. Pasco and Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writers

When he was appointed Orange County's chief executive in 2000, Michael Schumacher seemed like the perfect person to lead county government.

As county supervisors battled over whether to build a new airport at El Toro, Schumacher was considered a calm consensus-builder -- far different in style from his predecessor, the hard-charging Jan Mittermeier.

But Schumacher, who was fired Wednesday, turned out to be the wrong CEO at the wrong time, according to several top county officials.

His laid-back style frustrated supervisors, who expected decisive action on pressing problems. His lack of expertise in budgeting and finance became another issue when the county planning department began hemorrhaging money and the county braced for possible cuts in state funding.

Some supervisors and their aides privately complained that he resisted tough decisions and loathed confrontation.

In the end, a majority of board members came to believe they needed a more hands-on leader.

Politics was another factor, several county insiders said. Two supervisors -- Tom Wilson and Jim Silva -- are serving their final terms and eyeing runs for the state Assembly in 2004. They wanted to solve the various financial problems as quickly as possible so that they would not emerge as campaign issues later, sources said.

Schumacher was also losing support from some key department heads.

"Where I needed help here and there, I didn't get from Mike," said the county's elected treasurer-tax collector, John M.W. Moorlach.

"I felt in times of confrontation, instead of backing you up and agreeing [to fight], he'd say, 'Why don't we just agree with the [board majority].' ... If he would have been a leader it might have been different, but he was ducking and watching the bullets fly."

Schumacher did not returns calls seeking comment Thursday, and most board members were unavailable for further comment.

"The future of the county doesn't really lend itself to his style and modus operandi," Board of Supervisors Chairman Wilson said after Wednesday's vote.

"We are looking to be a bit more vibrant county and ... concentrate on some of the things we see as needing attention. We feel we could do that with a different style, a different personality."

Schumacher's ouster marks another chapter in the delicate and often rancorous balance of power between the elected Board of Supervisors and the appointed county executive.

After the county fell into bankruptcy in 1994, there was consensus that the county needed a stronger executive who would be more accountable and provide oversight for the far-flung bureaucracy.

But the board has repeatedly clashed with its CEOs over power and control.

Schumacher's conciliatory style was supposed to bring an end to this rancor. When tapped for the CEO post, Schumacher was a 30-year county veteran who had won national attention for his research into youth crime when he headed the Probation Department.

But Moorlach said Schumacher appeared intimidated by former Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who gained a reputation for challenging the CEO and asking hard-hitting questions. When Spitzer left in December for a seat in the state Assembly, Schumacher was faced with another challenge: the financial mess at the Planning and Development Services Department.

The department was spending more money than it was taking in. It depleted an $18.5-million reserve fund as well as an $8-million emergency loan from the board in August. To balance its budget, the department laid off one-fifth of the staff and wants to raise inspection fees.

The planning department problem was a key source of friction between the board and Schumacher. But it wasn't the only one.

Supervisors were also unhappy at early retirement benefits the CEO's staff negotiated and the board approved in December, sources said. Another factor: The county grand jury recently began investigating problems at the county's Office of Human Resources.

James Campbell, an aide to Supervisor Chuck Smith, said Schumacher's ouster has as much to do with changing times as anything else.

"The CEO's position inherently is going to have to adjust as issues change and as personalities change at the board level," Campbell said.

Asked what he would like to see in a new CEO, Wilson added: "I'm not saying the CEO should micromanage the County of Orange, and I'm not saying the CEO should sit back and let managers manage independently."

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