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County fills No. 1 vacancy

Supervisors choose Thomas Mauk, Orange County's chief executive, to run the largest county government in the U.S.

January 30, 2007|Susannah Rosenblatt and Jack Leonard | Times Staff Writers

Orange County's chief administrator immediately accepted an offer Monday to run Los Angeles County's government, although Orange County supervisors planned a last-ditch effort to keep him.

A unanimous Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors offered the job to Thomas G. Mauk. He replaces retiring Chief Administrative Officer David Janssen.

The supervisors made the offer Monday after interviewing Mauk Thursday, officials said. He will be paid $270,000 a year.

Mauk is scheduled to start March 12, although Orange County supervisors said they still hoped to persuade him to stay. Mauk met individually with Orange County's supervisors Monday and apparently agreed to hear a counteroffer from them at a closed session this morning. Orange County officials may offer him a sweetened deal. He had been hired at an annual salary of $215,000 in 2004.

"The fat lady hasn't sung yet," said Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach, adding that a search for a new chief administrator would be costly. "There may be a glimmer of hope we may be able to keep him here."

The tug of war for Mauk underscores the difficulty large counties face in finding and retaining qualified managers. After Los Angeles County supervisors conducted a six-month search for Janssen's replacement, they offered the post to Sandra Vargas, a county administrator from the Minneapolis area, earlier this month. She turned the job down. Two others among the five finalists dropped out.

Janssen described Mauk as open, ethical and direct. Supervisors had praised similar qualities in Janssen.

Mauk, a 35-year veteran of local government in Southern California, "has a great respect for the political process," Janssen said. "He's not going to become the sixth supervisor."

Hired by Orange County in 2004, Mauk, 63, of Whittier, oversees more than 15,000 employees. Los Angeles County has about 100,000 workers.

Mauk also has held management posts with the cities of Whittier, La Habra and Norco, and a finance job with the city of Los Angeles.

Los Angeles County's chief administrative officer is responsible for a $21-billion budget that provides law enforcement, criminal justice, healthcare and other services to the nation's most populous county.

Supervisors preside over districts of 2 million residents each -- more than the populations of 14 states.

Janssen and the supervisors cite the health department's troubled finances and overcrowded jails as two major problems facing the incoming chief administrator. Inadequate jail funding has left the county's detention centers so short of space that since 2002, the Sheriff's Department has released more than 200,000 sentenced criminals early. Meanwhile, the county's healthcare budget deficit is projected to exceed $1 billion by 2010.

The job also requires balancing the demands of five bosses with divergent philosophies.

"He'll need the patience of Job and the diplomatic skills of Colin Powell," said Jim Lott, executive vice president of the Hospital Assn. of Southern California.

Mauk built a reputation for political savvy and quick action in Orange County: Business completed quickly was known as happening at "Mauk speed."

State Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), a former Orange County supervisor, credited Mauk with developing a plan to refinance debt remaining from the county's 1990s bankruptcy.

"He watched that bottom line," Correa said.

Officials said Los Angeles County supervisors also were impressed by Mauk's handling, as Whittier's city manager, of the devastation caused by the 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake.

"He's seen a multitude of crises and dealt with them," Board of Supervisors Chairman Zev Yaroslavsky said.

According to Janssen, Mauk declined to apply for the Los Angeles County job when approached last fall. As the pool of finalists shrank, Janssen called Mauk three weeks ago to urge him to reconsider.

Mauk's extensive experience in California government made him the best choice, Supervisor Don Knabe said.

"It wasn't like you were dealing with a candidate that no one knew anything about," Knabe said.

Yaroslavsky said, "The chemistry between the board and him was really good." Supervisor Gloria Molina said she was impressed with Mauk's candor on thorny issues.

"He was very straightforward and honest," she said. "He didn't try to B.S. us along the way."

Janssen retired this month after more than 10 years on the job. Supervisors agree that he will be tough to replace.

But Mauk, Molina said, "looks solid. He's firm. He seems to be in command."

jack.leonard@latimes.com

susannah.rosenblatt @latimes.com

Times staff writer Christian Berthelsen contributed to this report.

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