March 19, 2007 - From the March, 2007 issue

L.A. County Supervisors Empower County CAO to Become More Like a CEO; Janssen Stays On

After candidates to replace retiring L.A. County Chief Administrative Officer David Janssen balked at the position's lack of power, county supervisors decided to re-think the role of the CAO and the distribution of power in county government. They re-hired Janssen and recently approved an ordinance that redefines the office and expands some of its' powers. As Janssen explains in this TPR interview, his new powers will allow him to administer the county's 90,000 employees and countless departments more effectively.

David Janssen

The Metro Investment Report spoke with you in September on the eve of your retirement, and now we're speaking with you again in March as you've come out of retirement. Tell us why you're not drinking piña coladas in Maui right now.

Primarily because I don't like piña coladas; but somebody offered me a margarita, so I said I'd stay.

I retired in January so that there'd be an end date to this transition period, but with the talk about changing the governance structure and our difficulty recruiting a replacement, I felt that to stay and help with the transition was the right thing to do for a period of time.

How is the govnernance structure changing. Why is change needed?

The change that they approved on the first reading March 13 was a change to the county ordinance. It provides a mechanism for the County Administrative Officer (CAO) to hire and fire and evaluate department heads. Those decisions will still have to go through the board, but it's a totally different process than previously used.

The ordinance also assigns supervision of appointed departments to the CAO, and it institutes a non-intrusion policy to restrict supervisors' offices from giving direction or orders to the organization. The rationale behind that is that currently 37 departments all report to the five elected board members who can only exercise executive responsibility in public. They can't do it as individuals, and they can't do it privately. It makes for a very difficult organization to manage. It results in complicated decisions, and it complicates the implementation of board policies and directions. The change is to improve the effectiveness of the organization.

Despite our nation's founding fathers' allegiance to governmental checks and balances, the Board of Supervisors has run without a division of powers between executive and legislative branches. What problems have arisen, and how might this solution improve governance?

There are a couple good examples. One is the McClaren Children's Center, which for years was a troubled institution, with the most difficult kids. There are five county departments on the Board of Education, and they all had staff working at the center. All five organizations kept separate records because the ordinances prevented them from sharing information, and there was no cooperation in the operation of that center. The only way that we could address that situation was to create a commission of department heads. I was the chair of that commission, and the head of the McClaren Center reported to me.

Under the new structure, all of those people would work for me and I could simply and effectively require departments to work together. Under the old system, any time there was a cross-departmental issue-and most of ours are-the board had no mechanism to direct the departments to work together on an ongoing basis. Collaboration is difficult, and it's much harder when you don't have a single person in charge.

The public was given two or three opportunities in the last 25 years to create an elected county executive- to separate the executive power from legislative. But in each case, public rejected a charter change. What gives you hope that a charter change could take place this time?

I believe the previous votes pertained to an elected position, and the voters are always reticent to create new political offices. Most people familiar with our federal and state governments recognize that the separation of powers is part of the fabric of this country, and if the position is explained to them as a professional administrator for the departments instead of elected officials, I think it's a reasonably easy sell. I think it was the elected aspect of it that was problematic.

At a recent colloquium at USC you predicted that in your lifetime elected officials would be "no more" because the public was frustrated with representative government and preferred in its place, direct democracy. Is the organizational redesign of the County CAO position an example of the growing demand for public accountability?

The public cares about effective and efficient delivery of services, and they care about accountability. A long-standing rap on the county organization is that you don't know whom to hold responsible when something goes wrong because you don't have a single executive. From the standpoint of logistics, at least, I would hope that this would be a better organization. I don't, however, know that there's any direct relationship to the electronic aspects of voting and where the future may be going in that regard.

To be fair to the one board member who dissented, what did Mike Antonovich argue, and how did the board majority respond?


He contends that the county already is operating with a strong executive and that it is doing a good job in the current structure. He also argued that the elected officials would be muzzled and not have access to information and operations and that somehow constituents would be less represented as a result of this change.

I agree that the organization has accomplished a lot in its current configuration-it's not that nothing gets done. But currently its efficacy depends on personal relationships, and in the long term it has to institutionalize the structure of government because personalities are not transferable. The other board members who voted in favor of the change said that they believed that the organization as it existed was dysfunctional, with 37 department heads reporting to five elected officials.

What can the public expect in the way of formal adoption and implementation of this change in the CAO position?

There's a second reading, and then it's scheduled to take effect in May. We've met with department heads and staff to talk about ways to implement the change. For instance, the CEO of Santa Clara County came down to talk about how they operate there.

We're going to be deliberative about the way we implement it so that it provides a more efficient and effective organization, because if it doesn't accomplish those goals then we shouldn't be doing it. Eventually we will be a more formal organization, but it will be quicker and more disciplined. There will be faster turnaround of issues, more deliberate policy discussions on the part of the board, and, in the long term, hopefully a better run county. And problems that occurred at MLK, McClaren Children's Center, and Department of Justice probation camps won't happen again.

In September you told MIR that the "county is in the best condition it has been in many years, from both a financial standpoint and an organizational standpoint." Six months later, is that still true?

The fiscal statement is true, although we're obviously keeping an eye on the sub-prime mortgage lenders. The consequences of default and any kind of crash in land values could be devastating. And the Health Department continues to face fiscal problems, but overall, we are still in solid shape.

Organizationally, I find myself in an awkward position of defending what we've accomplished, while at the same time I believe that we could do more. The organization largely depends on the personality of the person in this job, and part of the difficulty in attracting people is that I think candidates just didn't understand what kind of an organization they were going into.

This issue of TPR carries an interview with Bill Witte of Related Cos., which just inked an agreement with the city and county for the Grand Ave. Project. Is the county happy with this deal? What are its prospects?

We're very happy with the deal. I've been working on Grand Avenue since 2000, and we've finally reached a point at which something is going to happen on that property.

The county subsidy is only $3 million on a $2 billion project. Although the revenues do not go to the county, $50 million of the base rent will be used to develop a significant downtown park. And Disney Hall is such a crown jewel for Los Angeles that it would have been a shame to keep our Erector Set parking lot adjacent to it.

I think Frank Gehry's involvement is important vis á vis Disney Hall, and it's exciting to have something going forward at that location. The economy is hard to predict; Related has hung in there even with increasing costs and decreasing sales. They're a good company, so I'm optimistic that they'll build something really meaningful there.


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