Community Editorial: Are Supervisors Worth the Cost?

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Orange County Supervisor Pat Bates. (Photo by: Violeta Vaqueiro)

As reported on Wednesday, salary negotiations for a potential new county CEO broke down when some members of the Board of Supervisors did not agree with paying her more than her predecessor, while others fought for a salary that exceeds that of recently ousted CEO Tom Mauk.

It is appalling that supervisors such as Pat Bates and Janet Nguyen, who should represent taxpayer interests, seem to be representing the job candidate’s interests by trying to negotiate a high salary for her during this process.

If we are going to discuss the county CEO’s compensation, this begs a much larger question: Are we truly getting our money’s worth by paying five supervisors approximately $143,000 per year plus generous medical benefits and other perks to preside over a county in which less than 5% of residents live in unincorporated areas? Is our antiquated structure, originally intended for a sparsely populated geographic region, suitable for a 21st century, densely populated area?

I argue that it is not. Therefore we need to rethink the county governance structure.

Orange County is a haven for government sprawl. We have 34 cities, 28 school boards, 11 water boards and four community college districts, which means there are more elected officials in the county than there are legislators representing the entire state in Sacramento.

We have a full-time elected Board of Supervisors that governs an area composed primarily of cities with their own governance structures in place. This is inefficient and unnecessary, as boards of supervisors — at least full-time boards — are not necessary in urban areas. The idea of a board made more sense 50 years ago, when major portions of the county were unincorporated. It constitutes an added layer of unnecessary bureaucracy today.

In the mid-1990s, former Supervisor Marian Bergeson proposed eliminating the Board of Supervisors and replacing it with a part-time Orange Regional Services Authority. This group would have consisted of 10 city leaders, four community leaders and an elected county mayor. She estimated at the time that eliminating services provided by the county bureaucracy and transferring the administration of such services to cities would save the county $140 million per year. You can read more details of her plan in this Los Angeles Times article.

In 1995, she told the Times, “The supervisors’ days as land barons frankly don’t exist anymore, as more and more of the area becomes incorporated.”

I recently asked Bergeson if she felt her idea was still relevant. She said yes.

Do I believe her plan would work? It very well could. We should begin this conversation by looking at a primary element of the plan — implementing a part-time board. The current board has high salaries and is composed of career politicians, such as Todd Spitzer and Pat Bates, opportunists who dislike pubic employee unions, yet voraciously seek public employment on a regular basis. Spitzer is back after already serving as supervisor 11 years ago. Bates is running for state Senate, and Nguyen announced her candidacy for state Senate slightly more than a month after beginning her current supervisorial term.

A part-time board would benefit all taxpayers, as it would be composed of officials who work real jobs and understand firsthand the daily needs of the citizens they represent. Additionally, we can replace their bloated salaries with modest stipends, while eliminating all unnecessary medical and pension benefits.

So kudos to those on the board who are holding firm about not raising the county CEO’s salary. If she declines the job, another strong candidate will come along.

Supervisors, if you stick to the same principle of fiscal responsibility, we should also discuss whether you are overpaid for the work that you do.

In contemporary Orange County, you are.

Michael A. Moodian (@mikemoodian) is a public-policy analyst and Voice of OC Community Editorial Board member.

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