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County to rehire top manager for a time

David Janssen will retain his post as supervisors conduct a new search for his replacement.

February 07, 2007|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to temporarily rehire retiring Chief Administrative Officer David E. Janssen and agreed to consider dramatically expanding the power of his post as they plan a new search for a successor.

Setting the stage for what could become a major shift in the nation's largest county government, they called a pause in their search for Janssen's replacement and agreed to weigh making almost all county department heads report to the administrator rather than the board itself. Four of the five supervisors support that proposal.

"We have a unique opportunity, a unique window here, to change county governance, change the culture," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who has previously advocated such reform though he would prefer to see an elected county executive.

The administrator currently acts as an advisor to the supervisors but does not have decision-making power -- a point of discussion apparently noted recently when two top candidates turned down Janssen's job. Unlike Los Angeles, other populous California counties have strong chief executives with broad authority to set policy as well as to hire and fire.

If approved, the companion motions by Supervisors Don Knabe and Yaroslavsky would tell county lawyers to draft an interim ordinance that would let Janssen make hiring and firing decisions, with board approval. Janssen officially retired Jan. 16, but the board voted to retain him for up to 120 days at a monthly salary of $20,176 -- the same rate as his previous $242,000 annual pay -- while they conduct a new search for his replacement.

The proposal the supervisors appear likely to approve would address a question that has periodically consumed county officials for more than a decade: how to bring a centralizing authority to a government overseen by five elected leaders, none of whom has to answer to any of the others. That structure has contributed to county problems, with district needs at times trumping countywide concerns.

"It's always better to report to one person than five," Supervisor Gloria Molina said.

The timing of this debate is accidental, supervisors say, and not a ploy to draw more job applicants. The failed search process for a new administrator and Janssen's extended stay provided the right moment to make permanent structural changes to empower the county's chief officer.

"Many of our issues are cross-departmental, particularly in child and family areas," Janssen said

The crisis at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center "should never have happened," Janssen said. "It was in part a result of the individual supervisors wielding authority over an individual interest in their districts."

The motion also makes provisions to draft an amendment to the county charter, to go before voters in June 2008, that would make such changes permanent. The amendment would allow a county executive to make personnel decisions independently of the supervisors, and prohibit them from interfering with the county executive's decisions.

"We need to define the lines of authority in this county, not blur them," Yaroslavsky said. The move could allow the board to focus more on policy rather than day-to-day management, Molina said. The sheriff, assessor, district attorney, county counsel, auditor-controller and executive officer of the board would not be governed by the new chief executive. Knabe said he has been working on such a plan for months.

"I've felt for a long time that the accountability issue was really important to county government because of the size and the scope of what we do," Knabe said.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich, however, was highly critical of the proposal and said he planned to oppose it. Granting a county administrator more authority is "a step backward from responsible and open government," he said. "Jointly shielding bureaucrats from accountability is a disingenuous attempt to replace elected representatives with a puppet who is not held accountable to the taxpayers."

Antonovich described the proposal as a "power grab" that "emasculates the elected representatives' ability to effectively govern." He said the move was a ploy by Yaroslavsky to lay the foundation to run for the elected "county mayor" position that Yaroslavsky has supported in the past.

For six months last year, the board conducted a nationwide search and chose five finalists to interview. Front-runner Sandra Vargas, a county administrator in the Minneapolis area, declined the county's job offer, opting to run a charitable foundation there.

Two other finalists dropped out of the running. An additional candidate, Orange County's Chief Executive Thomas Mauk, accepted and then declined the job in recent weeks. Though Mauk and Vargas did not insist that they needed executive authority to do their jobs, they emphasized its advantages, Molina said.

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