As Orange County supervisors begin Tuesday to hold public hearings on the 2013-2014 fiscal year budget, many eyes will be focused on the adjustments required of different departments — especially mega-agencies like the Sheriff’s Department and the district attorney’s office as well as the potential impacts from a $73-million dispute with the state Department of Finance.

Voice of OC took the opportunity to sit down with the county’s new CEO, Mike Giancola, last week to discuss the challenges facing the $5.4-billion organization as well as how he’s fitting in since being appointed on May 7.

Q: What has it been like the last month going from head of OC Waste & Recycling to County CEO?

A: It’s been very interesting, very stimulating, because it’s so new. Going from a department head of one department … to overseeing many departments, is — I use the word daunting, but it is.

I’m somebody who has worked in two departments: The parks department and the waste department. So I’m learning.

In fact, today I’m going to go over today to the crime lab to get a tour, because it turns out I’m a supervisor of the crime lab … the triumvirate with the DA and sheriff.

My first day on the job was the VLF [the property tax lawsuit won by the state ordering the county to pay as much as $150 million each year] … so it’s been very demanding and very interesting.

But I’m finding that I like what I see in the rest of the county. They are really good people, and they always try to do a good job. There’s lots of dedication at all levels.

Q: What’s your sense of the greatest challenges facing the county government?

A: I think the biggest challenge I’m seeing is the amount of limited revenue for the demands of many, many stakeholders, whether they are residents, people we provide services to or employees. And the issues are not so easy.

It’s a tough situation with the amount of money we get back from Sacramento compared to the services we are supposed to provide.

VLF is really the thing we are all working toward. And collaborating with labor — they’ve been a great partner, and hopefully they see us as a partner trying to work through the state and get the state to understand who gets hurt on this thing.

Finances are the situation. If we have to cut a check for $150 million, I don’t care who you are, that’s a hit.

[Giancola also discussed establishing better succession planning at the county.]

Building the bench. I do believe it’s important for all departments to have a bench of people, because with the retirement formulas the way they are, it’s conceivable you’ll have lots of retirements.

It is important to have a bench of folks ready to step forward and lead. You should be developing staff all the time. You set the vision, expectations. … People respond to that.

Q: So what’s your sense of the county lobbying team that dropped the ball on protecting the county’s interests on the VLF, now valued at $73 million annually? Are you looking to reorganize the county’s legislative advocacy team in the wake of the controversial loss?

A: One of the things that’s important is you assess situations. You assess your team.

In terms who dropped the ball, I think that happened in 04/05, I don’t have specifics on it. We aren’t looking to blame anybody. I don’t typically do that. I like to fix problems instead of fixing blame just as a general philosophy. In a county of 17,000 [employees], people will make mistakes.

I do know Platinum [Advisors] wasn’t involved. We’ll do our piece now so to make sure those things don’t occur.

[Regarding the upcoming reorganization of the county’s legislative advocacy team, Giancola said he’s awaiting an assessment before taking action.]

I’ve got to know more about what they do and how they do it. The mission may be different. We may be more active.

Q: How do you build employee morale after a scathing grand jury report, one that drew an immediate announcement from the county Board of Supervisors, because the panel questioned the county’s harassment reporting environment?

A: The grand jury did it’s report. We’re looking at it. We have done some things. We’re contemplating EEO [Equal Employment Opportunity] training.

We have an EEO office. There’s the fraud hotline. There’s many avenues for staff. There’s bulletin boards. There’s a grievance process with the union.

The grand jury report does make us look at the findings. And we will respond to them.

When I saw that grand jury report, it’s not something I could relate to. I do the harassment training [at OC Waste & Recycling] every year. I just think that it’s there. Was the grand jury able to get to that information? I don’t know.

I just really haven’t seen it in my department. There are issues but they are investigated.

I don’t think they have anything to worry about. There’s a process, and their superiors can’t retaliate against them. They could do it, but they would be vulnerable.

At the end of the day, all these things get investigated, full and complete. And that’s what people can take away from that. We will not overlook those kinds of allegations.

Q: What is your sense of the allegations made against you involving retaliation in the ongoing lawsuit involving former county Human Resources manager Kathleen Tahilramani?

A: No comment.

Q: How has it been working with employee groups, given all the tension over the tight budget and the looming budget hole that could appear if the county is unable to negotiate a settlement with the state over the VLF dispute?

A: It goes back to the original question. The challenge is that you have a pot of money, and at the end of the day that’s all you have — the pot of money. And if you give somewhere, you’re taking from somewhere else. And it just comes down to that.

When it comes to labor, it’s tough. Especially when you’re in an environment when you want something and you have nothing to give.

It’s tighter now. It’s tougher.

Q: So what do you give?

A: What I did at OC Waste and Recycling, we focused on employee training. At least then, if we train you and you show some initiative, at the end of the day you have something for your resume.

Yet in this environment, I don’t know if we can do even that. You try to build trust.

Q: Part of the job of county CEO is dealing with 34 different cities on issues. How will you address that challenge?

A: Certainly the issues will be different and sometimes bigger. But we did at OC Waste & Recycling, we signed up all 34 cities with a waste disposal agreement. So I’m used to dealing with cities and stakeholders.

That department is fascinating in that it’s probably one of the county’s true businesses. It’s got a service it provides with respect to running this operation of landfill disposal. And who is your customer? You have to have a real sense of who your customer is. In that case it was the city and the hauler.

I always believe you should know who your customer is at every level, even staff. You should know who your customer is.

Q: What’s your favorite part of the job so far?

A: I received a lot of support. I was answering hundreds and hundreds of emails and phone calls. To know a lot of people are supporting you, that makes you feel you made the right decision.

I like challenges. And I’ve never had five bosses before. So I’m kinda trying to learn to work with each one. They’re so different and unique and so very smart. That’s been fun. Working with the board.

Please contact Norberto Santana Jr. directly at and follow him on Twitter:

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