THERE ARE TWO conventional schools of thought about why the Supervisors fired their relatively new Chief Executive Officer John Ball last Wednesday in a special closed session. (The Supes themselves have refused to explain the firing on the advice of County Counsel.)
The "conservative" view is that Ball was doing a peachy job, but when Supervisors Kendall Smith and David Colfax privately asked him to insert a big increase in the Supervisors travel and staff support budget (from about $30k to about $50k), Ball (correctly) told them they'd have to vote on it in public session. Smith and Colfax then didn't like being put in the uncomfortable position of having to publicly vote to up their own budget and axed Ball as punishment in closed session. This view makes the liberals look petty and selfish.
The "liberal" view is that Ball overstepped his authority as Chief Executive Officer by making major organizational and personnel changes in the County without consulting the Supervisors or anyone else. Liberals say Ball was also rude and abrupt with the "liberal" supervisors. Accordingly, the Supes had no choice but to fire Ball to keep the situation from deteriorating further.
Liberal Ukiah realtor (and former Grand Jury member) Jim Crelan buttressed the liberal view in the Ukiah Daily Journal on Monday saying that the "conservative" supervisors, Michael Delbar and Jim Wattenburger, sandbagged the liberals by failing to inform them of Ball's chaotic history in Portland when they returned from a recruiting trip last Spring. Crelan says that the conservatives "were bluntly warned by county employees' union representatives [in Portland] that Ball had a clear record of behaving exactly as he subsequently behaved here in Mendocino — even including the same bungled attempt to create a 'Shared Business Services' department! Strangely," continues Crelan, "this warning was never shared with the other three supervisors. They had to find out the hard way."
Unfortunately, neither explanation is entirely correct nor holds up under scrutiny.
THE TROUBLE with Mr. Crelan's "liberal" argument is that the assertion that Delbar and Wattenburger "never shared" the employee union warnings with the Supervisors is way off.
IN APRIL of last year, the week that the Supes announced they'd selected Mr. Ball as the new CEO, we reprinted the following excerpt from the November 2003 edition of an on-line Portland area labor newspaper called The Portland Alliance by Associate Editor Don McIntosh prophetically entitled, "Managers Worsen Multnomah County Chaos." McIntosh reported that Multnomah County Board Chair Diane "Linn and Ball are bent on refashioning the county to mimic a private sector corporation — with a top-down management style, high salaries for top managers, and continual restructuring." All of these are charges Linn and Ball deny. They say they're bound to attract criticism for their management decisions at a time when a sizable drop in county revenue requires cuts at all levels. They say they expect opposition, which Ball called 'pushback' and Linn termed 'dynamic tension'." In a section called "Re-organized Chaos," McIntosh reports, "It's what one senior City Hall staffer called 'a reorganization merry-go-round' — divisions are added and subtracted from departments, departments are combined and subdivided, department names are changed and rechanged. In December 2001, Linn combined the divisions of Transportation, Elections, Animal Control, Land-Use Planning, Assessment and Taxation, and dozens of others, into a new super-department called the Department of Business and Community Services. This year, Linn proposed to break it up again into three departments: Finance and Budget, Shared Services, and Community Services." ... "'I don't even know what all the titles are any more, and I've been with the county 24 years,' Marla Rosenberger (president of the county's largest union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees AFSCME Local 88) said. 'It's like a shell game. People are unhappy with the constant reorganization, not knowing where they're going to report tomorrow'."
"BALL IS INTELLIGENT and charismatic," continues McIntosh, "and has his share of admirers. They describe him as articulate and personable, a 'big ideas' man with a gift for abstractions. His detractors are likely describing the same quality when they charge that he communicates in a kind of corporate buzzword boilerplate, laden with jargon and generalities ... as in this early memo introducing Shared Services: 'Shared Services concepts will provide a more customer-driven focus for our internal and external services, including IT. Shared Services will allow for more collaboration, innovation and service integration, not make us choose to 'centralize' or 'decentralize' services .... I seek to create a truly shared IT infrastructure in this organization to support integrated applications, integrated services and integrated data for informed management decisions.' Such a corporate ethos — in the county's top manager — is raising hackles among many county workers, who say it's not necessarily a good idea for the public sector to emulate for-profit corporations. Ball refers to the county as 'the company,' calls citizens who interact with county agencies 'the customer,' and describes employees as 'the human capital of the company'."
"BALL said he knows county workers are unhappy about the change. But the public sector will have to get used to a more rapid 'organizational evolution,' Ball said, adding that these kinds of shakeups are a constant in the corporate world, citing an Intel executive who once said: 'If you haven't been reorganized in the last six months, you've been forgotten." ... And, "Ball said legal regulations require a kind of ruthlessness when employees are laid off. He didn't provide details."
ANOTHER PROBLEM with the "liberal" argument is that Mr. Ball's employment contract was renewed just this May, after all of Mr. Ball's rash reorganizations had been made. If the "liberals" who voted Ball out were annoyed by the Portland-style reorganizations, why didn't they do something when the contract was up for renewal? Further, the "conservatives" are right that the "liberal" Supervisors were probably acting vindictively about their own budget. The Supes' budget discussion the week before Ball was fired was described by Willits News reporter Mike A'Dair as a "blow-out" complete with expletives and complaints from Kendall Smith that Ball was being non-communicative and uncooperative, particularly involving the Supes own budget. "In [Colfax's] comments to Chief Operations Officer Alison Glassey, who was sitting in for the absent John Ball during the afternoon session, Colfax mentioned that he was displeased that the draft budget included a 34% increase in funding for the [Chief] Executive Office and only a 10% increase in the Board of Supervisors' office," reported A'Dair. I.e., a budgetary power play by Ball that Colfax didn't like. (These arguments about which executive office gets the biggest increase don't play well with the line departments on which Ball and the Board imposed a mandatory 6.5% budget cut.)
THE TROUBLE with the "conservative" argument is that Mr. Ball did indeed make rash and ill-considered reorganizations (also pointed out in these pages at the time), particularly with the ill-considered consolidation of Public Health, Mental Health, and Social Services into a very large "Health and Human Services" Department last March. Ball also misplaced Animal Control under Environmental Health, created a strange new special planning unit to "streamline" large development project applications, and super-glued General Services and Information Services together, putting an inexperienced computer technician from the Sheriff's Department by the name of Vernon Barber in charge. (But after only a few weeks Mr. Barber realized what the job entailed and chose to return to the Sheriff's office.) Ball and Glassey should have known that General Services, among other things, does most of the County's procurement and contracting — a specialized field fraught with administrative landmines. An experienced senior contracting/procurement officer needs to be in the loop for awarding county contracts which can go into the millions of dollars. Failure to follow correct bidding and review procedures can open the County up to serious liability from vendors and contractors. Ball, of all people, should have known this. Information Services is also in the process of acquiring a huge new (and expensive) County-wide integrated computer system, another task requiring savvy and experience.
EITHER WAY, the Supervisors, who had hoped to save some money with consolidations and perhaps spend some of it on their own travel and staff support, now are in to Mr. Ball for the rest of his hefty $131,000 annual contract, plus three months severance, a total of at least $150,000 — if Ball and his supporters don't sue the County as some (not Ball) have threatened. (Let's take most of that out of the Executive and Supervisors departments.)
IN MULTNOMAH COUNTY, the savvy Ms. Linn was Mr. Ball's partner in the chaotic reorganizations there. In Mendocino County Alison Glassey, promoted by Ball to "Chief Operating Officer," was his executive implementer — but Glassey had her own agenda. The parallels are obvious, hardly a secret or a surprise. Not only were the Oregon union complaints available from an ordinary Google search before Ball's contract was signed, but they were reprinted in this newspaper for all to read. (They did read them, didn't they?)
THE DAY after the supervisors fired Mr. Ball (i.e., last Thursday), they offered the CEO job to recently resigned head of Public Health, Carol Mordhorst. Mordhorst, who is very popular with the more liberal county employees, especially those who formerly worked for her in Public Health, will not consider a senior executive job with the County as long as Alison Glassey is also in the chief executive's office. So she turned the job down flat. The offer to Mordhorst is an indication that the three "liberal" supervisors who voted to fire Ball may have been pressured to do something about Mr. Ball by the Mordhorst bloc.
THE NEXT DAY, seemingly desperate to quell the uproar they had created, the Supervisors offered the job of "interim" CEO to former Mendo Chief Administrative Officer Al Beltrami who took the job — until the Supes can find a permanent CEO more to their liking. (But don't rule the conservative Beltrami out of the running for the permanent CEO job. The Board of Supervisors will take a more "conservative" tilt in January when John Pinches takes Wagenet's Third District Supe seat.)
IN THE DAILY JOURNAL report of Beltrami's hiring by neophyte reporter Katie Mintz was this telling little detail: "Ball was there to shake Beltrami's hand after the meeting was adjourned. Former Chief Operating Officer Alison Glassey, who was listed on the meeting's agenda under the new title of 'assistant chief executive officer,' also congratulated Beltrami, saying that he was her first boss when she began working for the county."
In other words, Glassey's Chief Operating Officer wings have been clipped too, probably at the request of Beltrami, who's been around long enough to know many of the ropes and players at the County Admin offices in Ukiah, having served before as Chief Administrative Officer from 1965 to 1990.
THE SUPES either knew or should have known about Ball's history in Portland (no matter what Delbar and Wattenburger may or may not have reported), and they should have simply included a provision in his contract that re-organizations require Supervisorial approval. If, in their typical incompetence, the Supes didn't realize there was a problem until last March when Ball abruptly amalgamated the Health and Human Services Department (without a plan, objectives or concept of just how the departments would merge), then the Supes should have at least required that future re-organizations require Supervisorial approval. By abruptly firing Mr. Ball, the Supes are acting as rashly as they say Ball was. Firing should have been a last resort.
THE WHOLE FIASCO, like the Ralph Freedman Fiasco of three years ago (where a known, publicly documented hothead and womanizer was hired as Children's Support Services Director without an ordinary background check) was foreseeable, easily avoidable, unnecessary and wasteful. And the Supes' bungling will cost the County another couple hundred thou while services decline, deficits go up, fees go up, and employee morale worsens. Mendo business as usual, in other words.
BELTRAMI and the Supervisors now find themselves in a Mendo version of the chaos described by Mr. McIntosh in Portland to deal with. A "perfect storm" of mismanagement, bungling, turnover, retirements and resignations has shaken up County management over the last few months. A lot of experienced hands are gone or will be soon. And Ball's departure will only make it worse. The four major organizational changes Mr. Ball and Ms. Glassey installed without bothering to even put the changes on the Supes' agenda, much less consult with anyone outside his own office are on top of a slew of recent and upcoming senior managerial changes.
Gone in the last few months or by the end of the year are Animal Control Director Greg Foss (not replaced, no loss), County Counsel Peter Klein (replaced by Jeanne Nadel, no real improvement), Auditor Dennis Huey (to be replaced by his assistant Meredith Ford in January), Treasurer Tim Knudsen (to be replaced by his assistant Shari Schapmire in January), Personnel Director Stephanie Kentala (no replacement yet), Public Health Director Carol Mordhorst (no replacement yet), Sheriff Tony Craver (replaced by interim Sheriff Kevin Broin pending the November run off election), General Services Director Pete Halstead (not replaced), Undersheriff Gary Hudson (not replaced), Information Services Director Jay Johnson (not replaced), and John Ball.
In addition, the Social Services Department has lost Glassey (replaced by her deputy Steve Prochtor a few months ago), Mental Health Director Beth Martinez/Robey has been assigned to the Chief Executive Office (replaced by Glassey loyalist Anna Mahoney). Shared Business Services Head Vernon Barber (promoted to the job but quit and returned to Sheriff's office computer tech job after a few weeks leaving the position vacant — if it remains a position).
There's also a fairly new County librarian, and a relatively new Chief Probation Officer. We assume the Museum Director has not yet resigned. Carol Mordhorst's husband Bruce remains at Children's Support Services.
Besides Beltrami, Former KZYX General Manager Diane Hering is now also working in the Chief Executive Office.
Soon to leave or likely to leave: highly experienced DA Norm Vroman (Vroman's in an uphill runoff election with inexperienced former Deputy DA Meredith Lintott who's the odds-on favorite to take over as DA in January), and Hal Wagenet (to be replaced by former Supervisor John Pinches in January).
The County's only senior managers still in their jobs as of next January will be Planning Director Ray Hall, and Agricultural Commissioner Dave Bengston.
MEANWHILE, the County still has what Ball described as a "structural deficit" — now increased by $150k (plus whatever they're paying for Beltrami) which would have been difficult even for experienced managers to trim. Union contract negotiations are still underway. (The County's employee union has been annoyingly quiet during these last few months of internal turmoil as Ball's re-organizations started hitting their members too, raising only a very timid squeak of a request to be consulted in the future on personnel matters.)
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