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ORANGE COUNTY COMMENTARY

Why Seek a County CEO When We Have No Crisis?

October 19, 2003|William J. Popejoy | Retired Orange County businessman William J. Popejoy served as chief executive of several financial institutions, Freddie Mac, the California Lottery and Orange County.

Few things in my career have given me more satisfaction than the time I spent as the chief executive officer of Orange County. The 1994 bankruptcy was a real crisis, and we accomplished much in its aftermath. By "we" I mean county staff, union representatives and community business leaders (particularly the executive volunteers who worked without pay). And, yes, the supervisors, some of whom were great to work with.

I apologize for inadvertently omitting anyone, but my point is that it was a team effort. With the benefit of hindsight, there are things I would have done differently, but I do not believe the results would have been different, and I am very proud of those results.

What relevance does my experience have during the county's ongoing CEO search? I believe that a CEO is desirable -- perhaps necessary -- during a crisis such as the bankruptcy. The CEO can be a focal point for the unpopular quick actions that are needed.

Orange County currently doesn't have a crisis. Sure, there are serious problems, yet, in my view, no crisis exists. That's the basis for my recommendation that the county doesn't need a CEO. I believe it instead should seek a chief administrative officer. With the existing county organization of five elected supervisors, who all at times believe they are the CEO, there simply is no room for a sixth CEO.

The county does need an able, yet extremely tactful, chief administrative officer to coordinate management of various county entities. The chief administrative officer must accommodate the often-conflicting directions from five supervisors, so it will not be an easy job.

I know some will observe that my recommendation would return the county's top administrative position to the exact title that existed before the 1994 bankruptcy. It is true we had a chief administrative officer then. But I respectfully suggest the root causes of the bankruptcy were deceit, fraud and incompetence spread among many important players in the county at the time. Sadly, we see in the media today too many examples of how CEOs also have exhibited the same sorry traits. So it's not the title but how the job duties are understood and performed.

Our current form of county government was created in the 1800s, when the county was a sparsely populated agricultural area. Now the county is almost completely urban/suburban. We have more than 30 city governments, so a reasonable argument can be made that the county government is largely redundant and therefore is less efficient and creates an unnecessary burden for taxpayers.

Certainly county government performs many valuable services. I believe, however, with planning and effort most could be better handled by the cities. Such changes have been long recognized as needed, but unfortunately, no progress has been made to correct the problem. It is hard to change government structures, even one that appears to be a dinosaur.

So if we are stuck with an essentially flawed organization, let's make the best of it. I recommend the "baling wire" approach. Hire a chief administrative officer. We should expect the person to last only three to five years, because during that time, under the best of circumstances, any candidate would wear out his or her welcome with at least three of the five supervisors.

The reason that few CEO candidates have come forward in the current search is that potential candidates recognize that the CEO position doesn't really exist. So why not call it what it is: a chief administrative officer. In fact, even the "chief" part might be misleading.

I also suggest that the best candidate for the CAO job is already working in county government. Someone inside government has a better chance of understanding the personalities, realities and limitations of the position. A person with the proper skill set can help make the outdated organizational contraption work -- somewhat.

And one last suggestion: The person probably should not be more than five years from retirement, for the reason stated above.

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