September 18, 2006 - From the September, 2006 issue

L.A. County CAO Janssen Reflects On Fiscally Healthy but Challenged Local Government

Los Angeles County's five supervisors deserve credit for formulating policy and serving as the public face of the county. But tending to the 10 million residents of the nation's largest county, and particularly the 1 million who live in unincoprorated areas, is a challenge that transcends politics. Chief Administrative Officer David Janssen has run the county's daily operations since 1993 but will be retiring before the end of the year. MIR was pleased to speak with him and reflect on his career as the "Sixth Supervisor."


David Janssen

You have announced that you are stepping down after a long and distinguished career as the L.A. County's chief administrative officer. What is the condition of the county?

The county is in the best condition it has been in in many years, from both a financial standpoint and an organizational standpoint. Proposition 1A made a huge difference for local government when it was passed in 2004. The organization itself has made great progress in changing its culture to one that is more collaborative, and that is really critical.

When you last spoke with MIR, you noted that property and sales tax revenues were strong; that Prop 172 realignment was going well; and that deed transfers were up. Is that also the case this year?

All of that continues to look strong. Our revenue forecasts in the spring were more conservative, so we're doing better than forecasted. Next year, property taxes will slow down; that will affect deed transfers, so all of it is going to drop from 11 percent property tax growth to something more traditional, maybe in the 6 or 7 percent range. We forecast all of that when we put together three years out as best we can so that we don't make any commitments that aren't affordable.

In MIR's last interview, you also noted that in fiscal year 2006-7 the county's health department would run out of its reserve. Is that still the case?

That continues to be the case. They will have some reserves at the end of this year, but we're looking at the possibility of a $300 million shortfall in the 2007-08. A couple of different strategies are already underway. Some have to do with increased revenues through a federal waiver that went into effect a year ago and with rate increases in managed care operations.

The department is updating its 2002 strategic plan to identify where reductions can be made if we need to reduce them in the next year. The problem is significant, but compared to what we faced in 1994 it is much, much smaller. In 1994–95 it was about 30 percent of the operating budget for the department; it's now about 9 percent. While it continues to be big it is more manageable than it was then.

And what is the legal and financial status of King-Drew Medical Center?

It has been exactly four weeks since CNS left the facility. They had up to 16 surveyors for almost ten days, and we have yet to hear their conclusion is as to the future of the facility. So right now we're holding our breath. We think that there is no question that there are dramatic improvements throughout the operation, but we had to meet all 23 of the requirements and we just don't know.

A few months ago MIR interviewed L.A. County Public Works Director Donald Wolfe about the impact and promise for the county of L.A. of the infrastructure bonds on the November ballot. What is the significance of these bonds for the point of view of the county?

The County's Public Works Director is our expert on these bonds and their value for Los Angeles.

Also on the state ballot is Prop 90, a measure that could saddle governments with lawsuits based on claims by individual property owners of damage or loss of value resulting from any public regulation. Has the Board of Supervisors taken a position on Prop 90?

The board generally does not take positions on propositions. Prop 90 is thought to be very concerning to all local governments from schools to cities to universities for that matter, but not because of eminent domain. Honestly, eminent domain is not used often, and, if it is used, it is often friendly and to the benefit of the land owner.

The concerns arise from the other provisions in the initiative which refer to actions taken or not taken that in any way impair the value of private property. Claimed impact, as well as lawyers fees, would have to be reimbursed; that is just astronomical. Prop 90 is a real cause for concern, But the board has not taken a position on it.

What explains the absence of real debate in the state on Prop 90, even though a similar measure was on the Oregon ballot-funded by the same New York developer-two years ago?

The initiative process often makes it impossible to have a reasonable discussion about policy issues in California.

By in large initiatives have been sponsored by special interests-it's not negative special interests, just a particular group that wants to impact public policy to their benefit. Campaigns are run, and they spend millions of dollars to influence the voters. That is just not the way to run government.

We elect people to make those decisions who have the time and expertise to learn the complexities of law. There is just no way to have a good public discussion through initiatives. It's hard to have those kind of discussions when you are bombarded with advertisements.

You've spent a lifetime in public administration, both in San Diego and Los Angeles. Knowing what you now know, would you spend your career in public service and public administration again?

Absolutely. It has been a wonderful, challenging experience. But California is a very different state than it was when in 1972, when I arrived in Sacramento. The relationship between state and local government has, since Prop 13, gotten worse and worse. I remember the discussion we had in 1998-almost eight years ago-about the structural problems in California and whether or not they could be solved. This publication was more optimistic than I was at that time as I remember it. I don't think we've much, if any, progress. And I have great concern about the ability of our political system to deal with the problems facing the state.

What's at risk when the public pays little attention to or abstains from these crucial discussions?

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Voters don't really know who is really responsible for what-who's in charge of what-they don't know whom to hold accountable. Part of that is in the initiative process. They get frustrated and will vote for an initiative like term limits because they are mad at everybody in Sacramento-they're not exactly sure why, but they just know that it isn't working very well.

There are so many elected offices in the state. There are so many independent regulatory bodies in California that responsibility is diffused. Los Angeles has the MTA board, which is a state-created agency making transit decisions-they're not elected to that board; they are elected to other responsibilities and serve on the board. And then agencies such as the Air Quality Management District are separate operations.

The county has 88 cities, and hundreds of special districts; there are 1,200 school districts statewide. We witnessed the battle locally with the mayor wanting more control of the schools. I have long been fearful of the constitutional convention in California because of the potential harm that can happen, but I think it is probably time that the whole structure of government in California be revisited in the constitution. It is just very dysfunctional.

When interviewed you a year ago, you addressed the idea of creating an elected county executive. Is that notion still alive?

The idea of creating a strong executive is alive. Whether it is an elected position or a chartered position-I think people have mixed views. One of the TV stations did a series on the Board of Supervisors about a month ago and they addressed this issue, and board members talked about the issue on TV. They recognize the value of such an executive, but getting there and figuring out what it looks like is the challenge because the county has run the way it is now for 156 years. Changing that would be difficult.

MIR has had a number of conversations with about the value of regional decision-making. A number of public policy challenges like mobility, air, transportation management, and development, don't respect local political boundaries of either the 88 cities in L.A. or even the county itself. Is there any hope of incorporating regional governance into our current governmental structures?

If there was a way to hold the discussion without threatening the jurisdictions of the county and cities, then it might be possible. But as many times as it has been tried, it has always floundered due to the fact that we have so many political jurisdictions and no one is willing to cede their power.

I could argue that the Board of Supervisors, as the only body elected to represent 10.2 million people, should be the regional government for L.A.. The argument works even better in San Diego because of a somewhat isolated jurisdiction; SANDAG is not multi-county.

L.A. is challenged by the fact that we're a basin that includes 15 million people. That gets back to the issue of rebuilding the structure of government in California so that people can understand and hold accountable specific jurisdictions for specific programs, which they cannot do now.

What are your plans after you leave county government?

The toughest decision was whether to stay or leave. This is a great job. I like the board; I think they are doing a great job; the organization is in good shape. But, it just felt like the right time to retire. I have not given much serious thought yet to what's next. Whether it's consulting or teaching-I have held a PhD since 1972 and never used it-so I could go teach somewhere. I don't know.

Regarding teaching: polls and focus groups suggest that young people have a disdain for politics and a lack of knowledge about how government works. How do you explain that? If you were to teach, how would you re-engage them?

There's no single cause for the disenchantment. The press are not responsible, but no one in their right mind would run for public office in this country because as soon as you announce that you are running, the media-and your opponents-try to find every horrible thing you have ever done in your life. People get tired of that and they turn off to the politics, they turn off to the people, and they are no longer engaged in public life.

That feeds on itself. Elected officials will run against government, thereby further degrading its legitimacy and relevance. In California-with the initiative process, the multiplicity of elected offices, the constant bombardment of attacks back and forth-people get tired and they just don't see the value of government and public life anymore.

Our political system is based on the need to compromise, but the public doesn't value those skills that are needed to be successful. Voters like to believe that you have to have people of great integrity, great beliefs, and strong leadership. But you can't pass laws in this country without compromise-so how do you compromise a principal? Inherent in our system is that you never fix a problem in passing a law; you are compromising a promise so someone is always is unhappy, someone is always prepare to attack-we have had 200 years for this, so I think people are just tired.

In a world in which hundreds of millions of people use the internet to create pages on sites like MySpace and YouTube and an explosion of sites by which politicians try to get their message out, do we have the ingredients to improve and enliven and engage people?

I may be too old to answer that, but it continues to boggle my mind every time a new invention using the internet arises. I don't know where it is going-no one could know where it is going since it is not a planned undertaking. It is literally a free-for-all.

But, the structure of government, the structure of nation-states that we have lived with for the last 125 years may not survive, and that may not be bad. You just have to look at history to know that no civilization lasts forever, that change is constant, and that it is both good and bad.

This may be the revolution that results in a world government-we don't know where it is going. There is a theory that economic decisions will become the most significant decisions worldwide in the future, not political decisions and that corporations, companies, employers, will be making decisions that affect our lives much more than government.

The Internet may be driving that-I don't know. Maybe now that you can literally have a mass vote on anything that happens, the next step is voting from home and voting on everything. The world as it has been in the last 100–150 years is going to be very different 100 years from now.

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