I started the day with a tour of the 91 Express Lanes and their administrative facilities with Kirk Avila and Ken Phipps of the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA). OCTA’s subcontractor’s offices are off of Weir Canyon Road overlooking the 91 Freeway.
The subcontractor, Cofiroute USA, oversees the transponders, billings, maintenance, and customer service of this toll road. The office is overseen by former Orange County County Executive Officer Jan Mittermeier. Jan had an unfortunate off-road ATV accident a few weeks ago, but appears to be recovering quickly. Please keep her in your prayers. I mention Jan because she garnered some fun media attention ten years ago. Consequently, I’m including my May 28 Look Back in today’s Update (although the article’s title has no correlation to today’s tour).
Directly from the tour I attended the annual Orange County Peace Officers’ Memorial Ceremony.
Yesterday’s and today’s editions of the Voice of OC include a couple of pieces on the County’s Board meeting. We had some 125 agenda items and these are the two items that drew attention.
The first is a clarification that I made during the Board Comments section on something I may have inferred at our meeting two weeks ago. For full disclosure purposes, I am on the Advisory Committee of the California Foundation for Fiscal Accountability. During the explanation of why the Orange County Employees’ Retirement System (OCERS) made a $228 million software glitch, I mentioned that the system was also costing the County more with its various recent lawsuits and its retention of the law firm of ReedSmith. One of the lawsuits I referred to is the OCERS Board’s unwillingness to release the names and annual benefits of its retired members. It came to my attention that the firm of ReedSmith may not be involved in this scrap. Other public retirement systems, like CalPERS, have provided this public information. Others balked, but were ordered to by the courts. As a member of the Board of Supervisors, I have to budget pension contributions that also have to include an amount to pay for the overhead of running the retirement system. So I suggested that it would be helpful for the OCERS Board to know that the BOS was not amused with it incurring costs to prevent the release of this information to the OC Register.
The second was one of our final agenda items. It turns out that 50 percent of our voters are permanent absentee voters (half are expected to vote in the June 8th primary election). Yet, we have to maintain all of the voting machines that we acquired as a result of an “hanging chad” incident a few years ago. Voting only by mail may provide a major cost savings, increase voter participation, and be less susceptible to fraud. Even with a totally “vote by mail” process in place, you can still “vote at the polls” by doing so at your City Hall on Election Day. Providing some 34-plus voting locations is easier than dealing with more than 2,000 precincts. This topic is worthy of a good debate.
Supervisors Set to Take Stand on Outing Highly Compensated Pensioners
The Orange County Supervisors will soon take a position on the ongoing battle between a pension advocacy group, the Orange County Register and the Orange County Employees Retirement System over the retirement system’s refusal to release names of officials receiving six figure retirements.
The California Foundation for Fiscal Accountability has secured such disclosures from the state’s pension system for both public workers and teachers. The group sued OCERS in December after it refused to release names. The Register has filed a declaration in support of the action.
This information is released elsewhere, and County supervisors are clearly unhappy that it is not happening here.
"Those names should be released," County Supervisor John Moorlach said Tuesday at the board’s weekly meeting.
Moorlach asked his colleagues in open session whether the Board of Supervisors should take an official position, especially since it’s partly their money – as OCERS largest participant – that’s funding legal defenses against disclosure.
"It’s been released elsewhere," Moorlach said. "And indeed we’re spending plan sponsor money on a lawsuit that shouldn’t be going on."
Supervisors Chairwoman Janet Nguyen instructed county CEO Tom Mauk — who also agreed that the retirees names should be released — to bring back the issue for a formal vote on June 22.
Disclosure of public employee salaries became a controversial policy in recent years as media organizations increasingly published individual salaries on databases available to the public.
Many public sector unions protested the move, arguing that it’s unfair to workers. Judges, however, have repeatedly decided that workers’ privacy is trumped by the public’s right to know how tax dollars are spent.
The same argument is now playing out in Orange County over retirees earning more than $100,000 a year in retirement payouts.
— NORBERTO SANTANA, JR.
Watching Absentees Trend Up While Forking Over for Voting Machines
More and more voters these days are saying no thanks to the election-day poll experience and literally mailing it in.
In Orange County, about 25 percent of voters will cast their ballots by mail in the June primary, according to Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley. Kelley sent out 619,000 absentee ballots in early May and he reports that a bit over 79,000 have already been returned.
So why, wonders County Supervisor John Moorlach, have American taxpayers spent nearly $50 million to purchase 10,000 new electronic voting machines in Orange County over the past decade?
Moorlach posed this question at Tuesday’s supervisors meeting just before approving $1.5 million in pass-though funds for maintenance of said voting machines.
The answer, said Kelley, is that we have no choice. It’s a federal mandate.
"The reality is a lot of voters are moving to vote by mail," Kelley said. "But you’ve still got voters who enjoy the poll site experience. And until there’s a statewide mandate (for mail voting), that’s not going away."
There is talk of going to all-mail elections like they do in Oregon. State legislators are now considering legislation to conduct such a pilot program in Yolo County in Northern California.
But for the time being Kelley has to keep Orange County’s voting machines ready for long lines if voters show up to the polls.
"I have to be ready for both," he said.
— NORBERTO SANTANA, JR.
FIVE-YEAR LOOK BACKS
The OC Register’s Sunday Commentary section lead editorial was titled “Mittermeier’s collision course.” If you’re looking for clues as to why we do not have an airport on the former El Toro Marine Base, this editorial may provide big ones for you. In the meantime, we have added two new departments during my first term that report directly to the Board of Supervisors, the Performance Audit Department and the Office of Independent Review. They are similar to the Internal Audit Department and serve as tools for the Board of Supervisors to monitor the effectiveness of the CEO and department heads more efficiently and with fully documented reports.
In looking back, it was my good fortune to be in an elective office, versus being an appointed department head. It allowed me to be candid with my observations without fear of retaliation.
County CEO Jan Mittermeier might have a case against the county if the board strips her of her El Toro authority, but that doesn’t mean it would be right for her to pursue it. Ms. Mittermeier’s latest public lawsuit threat is indicative of what has been wrong with her tenure in general, and with her handling of the El Toro airport issue in particular. One local official calls it the Mittermeier Cram Down – a secretive, take-no-prisoners approach to county government that has backfired mightily on the airport issue.
It has exacerbated opposition to the airport, where south county officials complain about the way she has cut them out of the base reuse process. Her approach almost led to her removal last month until Supervisor Tom Wilson came to her rescue. The latest flare-up occurred on Tuesday, when the board voted 5-0 to consider creating a new department responsible for airport planning. Its director would report directly to the board rather than to Ms. Mittermeier.
Her contract gives here “direct oversight of the appointed department heads and their agencies except for county counsel and internal auditor positions which report directly to the board.” Yet what would be gained by legal action?
The case is a reminder of why the board needs to muster its courage and put an end to the Mittermeier era – even if it means paying out a severance package. Enough already of an approach that divides the county at every turn.
“This is a microcosm of the essence of Jan Mittermeier,” county Treasurer John Moorlach told us. “This is the paradigm we’ve been living with: It’s my way or the highway. If I don’t get my way I’ll sue.”
Although he agrees that Ms. Mittermeier has “innumerable talents,” Mr. Moorlach believes that her attitude “should be, I am here and my sole function is to make my bosses successful.” Meg Waters, spokesperson for the coalition of south county governments opposed to a commercial airport at El Toro, agrees that “Jan has taken a ‘sue us’ approach” over public information issues regarding El Toro.
Ms. Mittermeier said that creating a department that reports to the supervisors would be a return to a pre-bankruptcy management technique.
This opens up the debate about the balance of power between the elected board and the appointed county CEO. Some argue that a powerful CEO was needed after the bankruptcy. But others, such as Eric Norby, a municipal attorney in Irvine, argue that the main problem before the bankruptcy was not that the CEO wasn’t powerful enough but that the supervisors didn’t do their job overseeing the county.
“Here they are trying to pay attention to the airport and hire someone who reports to them,” he said. “This has nothing to do with the bankruptcy.” Others, such as Mr. Moorlach, argue that “you can have a strong CEO, but the person who fills that slot needs to have the finesse of a city manager” – the ability to work with political figures and settle issues without constant confrontation.
The board should leave the power of the CEO issue for another day. The question it must answer now: Whether the county can change its approach to El Toro unless it first gets Ms. Mittermeier out of the way. The answer is getting clearer every day.
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