Dancing in the Dark on Low Gap Road
by Letters to the Editor, March 4, 2010
An Open Letter To “The Supes”:
The Board of Supervisors (affectionately known as THE SUPES) called a special session on Monday Feb 22nd with only 24 hours notice put surreptitiously on the internet on a sleepy Sunday morning. The topic was whether they wanted a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) to run the county, as they have, quite unsuccessfully, these past 6 years, or whether it was time to go back to the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) arrangement that had been the 'modus operandi' for many decades. They also needed to decide how to fill the costly shoes of CEO Tom Mitchell, who had summarily resigned a week earlier following a performance review by The Supes and who immediately turned off his cell phone and left town on a fast horse. While the public has shown interest in the CEO/CAO question and a citizens ad hoc committee was being organized, The Supes were in a big rush to get a new CEO in place to hack viciously at the overrun budget and relieve them of this burden.
Almost no one knew of the Special Session and only a few loyal business interests attended. They received essentially no public comment beyond support from the Farm Bureau, the Employers' Council, the Builders' Exchange, and a member of the Ukiah City Council. At the insistence of David Colfax they went through the motions of a debate although they all seemed to know how the deck had been stacked. “Lets get this over with quickly, discussion now would be distracting”: opined Johnny Pinches. “There is no big difference between the CEO and the CAO in terms of powers and duties” intoned John McCowen heavily.
They seemed to agree that their role was mainly to “set policy” rather than to manage the county government. Three Supes (McCowen, Brown and Pinches) eventually voted to stick with the CEO arrangement for at least for another 2 years and were happy leave the burdensome management of the many various County departments to their un-elected and only recently appointed Acting CEO, Carmel Angelo. Anyone who has managed a fair-sized company knows that you cannot set policy if you do not know what works, what doesn't work, and how things are going within the organization. Divorcing management from policy has left The Supes looking like five neutered butterflies pinned down in their leather chairs on that raised dais, fluttering their wings fitfully. Our last CEO, Tom Mitchell, even forbade the Supervisors from meeting privately with Department Heads to find out anything about our leaky little Ship of State. The problem with a CEO-led model is that the Supervisors give away their ability to know what is happening within the various Departments, to set goals, and to review the performance of the Departments and of their senior personnel. These matters are all relegated to the CEO, an unelected center of power unanswerable to the citizenry.
The CEO decides for himself who is meeting his standards, and can hire or fire Department Heads at will. He can ask The Supes to review his judgments but The Supes have little or no first hand knowledge upon which to approve or disapprove such judgments. CEO Mitchell liked to hide behind his laptop computer at meetings, seeming to ignore The Supes endless discussions, and set up his well-paid staff to take their questions. The Supes are often confused and frustrated by the financial buzz-words and management-ease spoken by these minions. Only Supervisor Kendall Smith appears educated in the tricky 'lingua managementus' often spoken on Low Gap Road. In fact, at this past Monday's special session she introduced two new phrases to our overburdened lexicon: “managing in a holistic manner” and “budgetarial functions”. It is immediately obvious even to someone attending even their very first BOS meetings that something is very wrong with this set-up. The Supes sit some twenty feet back and five feet higher than the audience, seemingly to avoid frontal thrusts by citizens with pitchforks.
By contrast, a Chief Administrative Officer-led government makes the Supervisors responsible for the performance of each department. They can drop in at Department meetings from time to time to find out how things are working, learn who the employees are, and to listen to them. Supervisor Colfax went on at length about the difficulties of being burdened as supervisor by administrative, legislative and judicial duties. It all seemed a bit overdone: The Supes have no truly judicial duties and can easily pass off routine administrative functions to others when the burdens become too taxing. He felt the public was not well-served by the CEO model. Kendall Smith thought it was “presumptuous” for a county as small as ours to need an expensive Executive Officer with supporting staff. She confessed that she had been wrong in agreeing to the CEO model six years back, but had wanted to be a “team player”. Al Beltrami, our longest surviving former CAO, suggested they wait 4 to 6 months before deciding on a new CEO or CAO, and agreed with Benj Thomas of the Ukiah City Council that they let the Acting CEO be watched and tested in the job before making a final decision. No one pointed out that Carmel Angelo has no prior experience as either a County Executive or Administrator and had served within the Public Health Department until a few months ago. Mark Johnson of the Employers Council felt that The Supes should not be “consumed with management and administration.” He neglected to describe their current diet.
Upon completion of the purportedly “public session,” The Supes disappeared into a darkened executive session where transparency was avoided and where the voice of the people could not be heard. Upon emergence some hours later, they announced that the Assistant CEO, Carmel Angelo, would be appointed CEO upon the completion of Mitchell's contract in a few weeks. No public discussion was encouraged, no talent search for a more experienced candidate would be undertaken, no explanation was offered as to why such a precipitous decision was needed this red hot minute, nor why Al Beltrami's reasonable suggestion of a trial period was ignored. The Supes are Dancing in the Dark once again, as they did when they fired John Ball as CEO without explanation, when Tom Mitchell mysteriously resigned without warning, and now when an inexperienced and untested person has been given a two year contract at a handsome salary without even a word of justification by Our Supes. Someone needs to turn on the lights on Low Gap Road!!