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L.A. County Probation Department seeks leader; must enjoy challenges

As the county struggles to fill many key top jobs, troubled Probation is among the tougher sells.

November 26, 2009|By Garrett Therolf

L.A. County officials, who have struggled in recent months to fill top executive jobs, face a test in coming weeks as they try to find a new leader for the troubled Probation Department.

Head hunters recently reported that the county's troubled agencies were not attractive to many prospective candidates, according to officials familiar with the reports.

Indeed, fruitless searches have left key departments throughout the county operating without permanent leadership.

Recent state budget problems compounded the issue by raising the likelihood that any newcomers will be forced to manage dramatic curtailments.

As a result, seven county departments are currently led by interim or retiring leaders, including the Human Resources Department, the Regional Planning Department and County Counsel. The Health Services Department, which operates the network of public hospitals and clinics, has worked without a permanent chief for 19 months.

Still, Chief Executive William T Fujioka said he was hopeful that a new probation chief would be appointed in time for current officeholder Robert Taylor's departure in January.

Fujioka is scheduled to interview finalists for the job next week, and the list is likely to include Jerry Powers, head of Stanislaus County probation, and Bernard Warner, chief deputy secretary for juvenile justice within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, according to people familiar with the process.

After his interviews with the candidates, Fujioka will make a hiring recommendation to the Board of Supervisors. But some child advocates have chafed at Fujioka's vetting process, saying it has not included substantial outside input, and they raised the possibility of a confirmation fight once his recommendation reaches supervisors.

"We're asking him to please talk to us. 'Let us help you,' we're telling him," said Jacqueline Jacobs Caster, president of the Everychild Foundation, a nonprofit agency that promotes increased focus on rehabilitation in juvenile probation and recently organized a trip for county officials to visit a model system in Missouri.

"Instead, this whole process is occurring in a vacuum."

In an interview, Fujioka said the hiring process would be too cumbersome if every interest group gained a seat at the table during his evaluation process, but he said he nevertheless had a clear understanding of the competing demands on any new chief.

"What I want is someone who fully understands the dynamic of probation, someone who fits today's world and not what the world was 20 years ago," Fujioka said.

"I want someone who is progressive enough and innovative enough to take the department from where it is now to the next level."

The new chief will face the tough task of supervising the largest probation department in the country, including about 6,200 staff members, 60,000 adult probationers and 20,000 youths (including about 3,600 in county-run detention halls and camps).

The department has a budget this year of about $700 million but faces millions of dollars in cutbacks under proposed county and state budgets.

The county's 22 juvenile halls and camps are being monitored by federal officials after repeated investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice revealed widespread problems with safety, staff training and medical treatment, among other things.

Taylor said he had made most of the improvements required at the halls, and county officials are preparing a multimillion-dollar plan to complete improvements at the camps.

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

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