It was a tale of two counties at the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday. One side told the story of a functioning county government, with the county executive officer (CEO) the leader of an organization that has improved in recent years and is better than it ever has been at providing efficient customer service to Santa Barbara County residents. The other side saw a system where concerns about organizational effectiveness and transparency are prevalent, while board responsibility and accountability was lacking.
Though a final vote on the matter is still two weeks away, concerns from 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf and 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr about the CEO position prevailed at the February 17 meeting of the Board of Supervisors. Salud Carbajal, 1st District supervisor, joined them in a decision to take away some of the powers bestowed upon the position four years ago.
The ordinance dictating the CEO’s duties and range of authority has changed three times in the past 20 years, most recently-and notably-in 2005, almost immediately after a switch in the board majority. Brooks Firestone took over the 3rd District seat, and not long after, the CEO position-held then and now by Mike Brown-was given enhanced power.
Four years later, in January, Firestone’s replacement Farr took office. Less than two months into her tenure, Farr sponsored the hearing to bring the issue back to the board. She said she has heard much about problems relating to communication between departments, between departments and the board, between departments and the public, and between departments and the media. As a result of Tuesday’s meeting, the CEO’s power to hire and fire most department positions will return to the Board of Supervisors. Whoever holds the position must now also submit to the board annual evaluations of department heads. “It’s just keeping us in the loop,” Wolf explained of the change.
Additionally, nothing will preclude department heads from talking to boardmembers. But those against Tuesday’s discussed reversion said this interaction was a large problem prior to 2005, when department heads would lobby supervisors for three votes to advance their department’s agenda. But if there is a sense that politics are being played by department heads, Carbajal said, he’ll be the “first to bring that to the board in closed session.”
Brown’s name was mentioned rarely throughout the hearing, and Farr made sure to explain it was “not in any way a performance review.” Brown has been the administrative head of the county for a sometimes tumultuous 12 years.
While 4th District Supervisor Joni Gray said the change was minor, she agreed with others who wanted to keep the current system. Some mentioned the fiscal climate the county is in. “Anybody can hold the rudder when there’s no wind,” said former city councilmember Dan Secord, who ran against Wolf in 2006. “To mess with the administration now seems shortsighted.” Holding one person accountable leads to less confusion, Firestone told his former supervisor colleagues.
But the end result was a message sent to Brown and the public that, as Wolf put it, boardmembers are “ultimately the ones responsible.” Said Farr: “We’re making sure the board’s level of authority is commensurate with the level of responsibility.”
The board will also put recruitment for the Planning and Development director’s position on hold until the amendment goes through. Currently in the spot is John Baker, who has a contract salary with the county. Baker has been at the helm of the department since not long after Brown’s responsibilities were increased in 2005. Last month, Brown and Human Resources Director Sue Paul presented the board with a brochure outlining the recruitment, but both Farr and Wolf had concerns about the qualifications for the position. So did various members of the public, one of whom said that the next director should be “someone with the maximum planning and management experience” possible.