Antonia Jimenez, pictured in January, recently resigned her post as interim… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )
It's an unpleasant rite of passage for top county bureaucrats: When something goes wrong, they are called before the Board of Supervisors for a public scolding.
Usually the unfortunate victim submits. But the case of Antonia Jimenez was different. Summoned before the board for tough questioning last month, the interim director of the Department of Children and Family Services was quietly defiant. She refused to go along with the board's reform plan and then resigned, going back to her previous county job and leaving the troubled children's agency without a leader.
Jimenez's decision intensified questions hovering over the children's agency — which has been engulfed in crisis after its mishandling of cases contributed to fatalities — and set off a new conflict between the county's elected leaders and its appointed bureaucrats. They like Jimenez, work under the direction of county Chief Executive William T Fujioka.
A few days after Jimenez quit, three supervisors proposed stripping Fujioka's office of day-to-day authority over the children's services agency, as well as the L.A. County Probation Department.
If the move is confirmed, Fujioka would find his power diminished by the supervisors for the first time since they hired him in 2007, and the supervisors would take management of children's services.
The proposal was tentatively welcomed by some children's advocates. "I don't think DCFS could get any worse than it was under Fujioka," said Jo Kaplan, the former longtime leader of a court-appointed firm representing foster children.
But Jimenez, who declined a request for comment, told supervisors at the April 19 board meeting that they were impeding efforts to fix problems at the agency.
In particular, she faulted them for not sharing internal reports on cases of children who died of abuse and neglect despite having had contact with social workers.
Such reports, completed by a special unit of lawyers in the county, are subject to confidentiality rules so strict that not even the head of the children's agency is allowed to keep copies.
Jimenez argued that this made it difficult for her to correct problems. But the supervisors said the rules were necessary to keep the reports out of the hands of the growing number of lawyers suing the county over children's cases.
The two sides traded arguments at the April 19 board meeting. Supervisors sought to use the public venue to pressure Jimenez into obedience, as they have done with other managers: One health director collapsed under their questioning in the mid-1990s and had to be hospitalized.
But Jimenez, who arrived at the county's Hall of Administration last year after compiling a sterling resume in Massachusetts state government, showed little emotion. When the board voted to order her to sign a document codifying the strict confidentiality rules for child death reports, she refused. She later moved back to a low-profile assignment in Fujioka's office. Fujioka declined to comment.
Supervisors afterward criticized her actions. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said she had made a "mountain out of a molehill." Supervisor Gloria Molina said she was "disappointed in her." Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich demanded Jimenez's resignation from any county employment and labeled her refusal to sign the reform plan "an act of insubordination."
"I don't believe," he said, that "bureaucrats should stand in the way of elected officials doing their jobs."
But some observers said they sympathized with Jimenez's stand. "The supervisors can be very hands-on — exhaustively and annoyingly so," said Michael Nash, the presiding judge of children's court, who has good relations with the board. "If her own assessment was that 'Hey, this isn't for me; I'm going to hand it off,' then good for her for speaking up."
People close to Jimenez said that in addition to her concerns about confidentiality rules, she was put off by the board's interference in seemingly minute managerial decisions.
A proposal involving just a few dozen new workers in a $1.7-billion department was stalled by weeks of review by the board's aides. Contractors who provided faulty services to children who later died sometimes received blistering phone calls from Supervisor Molina, who bypassed the department's official channels.
Jimenez left the children's agency without accomplishing her goal of eliminating a backlog of thousands of unfinished investigations. Many key efforts to reform the department's training programs, to fix computer systems and to mend other trouble spots have barely begun.
The department's chief deputy, Jackie Contreras, has been elevated to interim director, but the supervisors have signaled that she is not a candidate to lead the department permanently. A four-month search for a permanent director yielded just one candidate, and he opted to take another job.
Supervisors said they don't yet know how they will find the next director. "I think those details are still being worked out," Antonovich said.