County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett has created the most powerful chairmanship in Orange County history, just a few meetings into her new term.
I wrote last month that Bartlett had bumped into the old boys club as she tried to hang on to a politically influential retirement system appointment (a battle she lost).
Bartlett quickly bumped back.
Earlier this month, she got county supervisors to agree to extend out their meeting agenda deadlines by two weeks, handing the board chair a large amount of power – enhancing his or her ability to craft each meeting’s agenda.
There’s real power in rules, deadlines, and who gets to set them.
I learned that trying to keep up with politicians like the late Robert Byrd, D-WV, on the floor of the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C. when I covered the chamber for Congressional Quarterly in the mid-1990s.
Now Bartlett argues this change isn’t about power but transparency and efficiency, complaining that she has to spend her weekends reading agendas and there’s a last-minute scramble feel to the process.
Supervisor Michelle Steel seconded Bartlett’s complaint about a lack of time to review contracts, saying that as an English-as-a-second-language learner, (an ESL-Friendly Republican?) it would be helpful for her to have more time.
Keep in mind that taxpayers have allocated for each county supervisor nearly $1 million to provide office staff to help them oversee the contract approvals that constitute the primary scope of their work.
This is a substantial change to the county Board of Supervisors – possibly a move toward a stronger executive at the county level.
There’s always been talk about structural changes to Orange County government like the idea of a super city, or Chapman University Professor Fred Smoller’s idea of a countywide elected chief executive.
Bartlett also continues to fight to strengthen the chairperson’s ability to control appointments maneuvering to bring back Rule 38 on appointments despite kickback from her colleagues.
Bartlett’s colleagues didn’t go down quietly on the agenda changes.
But they did go down.
Supervisor Andrew Do offered a key amendment immediately once debate opened to extend the deadlines for supplemental items on regular meetings and he got his colleagues’ support.
Yet that still leaves the chair with a two-week head start on everybody.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer chuckled while debating Bartlett, joking that not even he would be this ambitious in enhancing the chair’s status on the board.
“You’re empowering the position of the chair against everybody else…that’s why you’re getting the pushback,” said Spitzer. “I don’t want to go ask you nine and a half days ahead of time whether I can ask you if I can put something on the agenda.”
Bartlett quickly argued back that this is the norm in city government.
That drew a check from Supervisor Shawn Nelson, the only one to vote against the proposal, noting that county supervisors are fulltime as opposed to city council members.
That’s probably the biggest change in this new approach; it’s adopting a two-meeting a month schedule – like a city.
Except a $6 billion bureaucracy needs a lot more approvals that most cities.
The supervisors used to meet twice a week in years past.
That means things will back up.
Department heads won’t make these two-week deadlines. You watch as November and December meeting agendas turn into contract approval marathons – they already do with weekly meeting schedules.
That highlights another important change, which is department heads will now be under the total control of the chairperson. They won’t have the ability to show up with supplemental agenda requests like other supervisors.
The bureaucracy will now be very closely allied to the chair.
Now here’s what’s also really interesting about Bartlett – who is new to county government and got in without the backing of some traditional GOP donor groups like the Lincoln Club: She knew she didn’t have the votes to support such a massive change but she chose to move forward anyway.
That could either be seen as reckless, independent or ambitious.
While Do may sleep better knowing that he has the ability to submit late supplemental agenda items, lets see how those deadlines work.
I still remember Do and Spitzer going after each other intensely over the county ethics ballot measure, with Spitzer publicly accusing Do of plagiarism (he later took it back publicly) over Do’s submission of a competing proposal and Do raising questions about Spitzer’s time-stamps of agenda requests as chair.
Expect those kinds of arguments to happen again, especially when things get hot and votes split.
Now, maybe this is the beginning of full-time accountability at the county in that there’s agreement to empower an executive in the chairperson’s slot that can make things happen, move a collective agenda forward and then be held accountable.
It could be the beginnings of much more censored and structured public meetings, where most deals will have already been cut in private.
With less public meetings, county supervisors will be free to do politics, cut ribbons and fundraise much more.
That could mean a really politicized environment.
I recall when we first launched Voice of OC in 2010, I covered Santa Ana City Council meetings, which were very clearly orchestrated events that began on the eighth floor offices of then-City Manager Dave Ream and then played out in Kabuki theatre fashion for the public.
Now with supervisors like Bartlett – who are in campaign debt and increasingly looking to county vendors to help them fundraise – the change could have a disastrous impact on agency department heads who are dealing with vendors that are – more and more – contributors.
In Santa Ana, that approach netted a very closed environment that put tons of power around Mayor Miguel Pulido.
It allowed Pulido to engage in shady business dealings with city contractors that netted numerous investigations, forced him to re-file key disclosure forms, and created tons of headaches for both Pulido and the city.
Only time, and votes, will tell which way things go at the county.