Santana: Frank Kim Must Sell OC on County Government

Orange County Supervisors this past week appointed Frank Kim, a well-regarded and straightforward technocrat, as the latest in a string of a half dozen CEOs who have tried to lead the county government since the 1994 bankruptcy.

Kim – formerly the county’s Chief Financial Officer – has been lauded by all sides for his ability to dominate budget matters.

Yet many insiders note his biggest challenge will be taming county supervisors.

Taming side-projects – like Chairman Todd Spitzer’s Victims Memorial – or newly authorized statues for Mile Square Park for Supervisor Andrew Do.

Indeed, in order to succeed – and save the county government model in Orange County – Kim will have to truly become a CEO…and resist supervisors’ desire to have him secretly function as a weak CAO (Chief Administrative Officer).

Kim takes over a totally beleaugured and politicized bureaucracy from outgoing CEO Mike Giancola – just look at the miserable ratings turned up by the annual employee satisfaction survey that probably spurred Giancola’s early retirement after back surgery this year.

Remember that Giancola was a former trash department head, who despite being in the center of multiple internal probes, ended up as the ideal consensus candidate because he was able to step in after supervisors publicly fumbled a recruitment effort to woo Santa Barbara CEO Chandra Waller in 2013.

With ticking campaign schedules, then-supervisors (now state senators) Pat Bates and Janet Nguyen both pressed for a soft, compliant CEO – like Giancola – to make their lives easy.

Waller eventually got fired by her own board. And after months of Interim CEO Bob Franz (another CFO), Orange County taxpayers eventually ended up with Giancola…”a bobblehead” as one insider recently called him.

I’ll never forget interviewing Giancola when he first took over. When asked what the biggest challenges facing the county were, he just gazed right back at you…crickets.

Yet that’s what supervisors seemingly wanted as CEO.

A bobblehead.

In official press releases, Spitzer officially cheered Giancola for his early retirement, declaring a formal reception to see Giancola off and salute him for a job well done.

Yet there were no specifics. I wonder what Giancola policies or innovations they’ll celebrate at the reception?

Employee ratings for the CEO and the county supervisors are so far below industry standards, its laughable…Or fodder for tears if you’re one of the many poor souls who depend on the county for safety net services.

Recently-negotiated IT contracts – which took nearly a decade – are a mess, awash in cost-overuns and lawsuits.

A grand jury report last year slammed consultant contracts to revitalize Dana Point harbor as a mess with allegations that look similar to the Great Park fiasco.

County human resources was an absolute mess – with questionable executive raises and hirings, along with a district attorney’s office investigation that spurred an indictment against a top executive (Carlos Bustamante) and multiple top resignations in 2012 such as former CEO Tom Mauk.

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas is operating under a cloud following revelations of a system lack of disclosure on criminal cases and allegations of playing cheap – but expensive to taxpayers – politics on poorly structured gang injunctions and sex offender ordinances that are now being ruled unconstitutional and netting damages.

Lets not forget our former Sheriff Mike Carona is in prison for corruption, indicted in 2008 but ready to soon be released.

Meanwhile, regional services like the Orange County Fire Authority are spinning out of control with an admitted lack of accountability at all levels, which recently forced the resignation of Chief Keith Richter.

Our toll roads seemingly can’t pay for themselves and the county’s road system apparently isn’t in good shape (wait for that OC Public Works survey soon) and of course, there’s no money to fix it.

Recently, the region’s largest newspaper, the Orange County Register, just essentially called for the end of the county government and 34 cities – calling out instead for one large city administrative unit – “Orange City” – that could garner nationwide attention for something other than a municipal bankruptcy.

After years of utilizing the county government structure to house hack political aides and upcoming elected officials, county supervisors have increasingly abdicated their role as a regional service provider model.

Sacramento is also attacking the viability of Orange County’s county government by choking it of revenues.

The state’s capital has locked Orange County into a property tax allocation system that only gives local taxpayers a return of only six cents on the dollar – compared to as much as a quarter in places like San Francisco. Meanwhile, our state delegation is so inept at recognizing the issues and so disconnected from the halls of power in Sacramento that this reality won’t change anytime soon.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson – who gave the issue the most attention it’s ever had last year as chairman – told me that when county leaders recently traveled up to Sacramento they noticed that state officials took note of Kim.

As the county’s CFO – after years of working as a middle manager specializing on the budget – Kim had instant credibility.

That, Nelson said, motivated him to push for appointment Kim as CEO. Nelson said he himself pushed hard for Kim because he didn’t want the county machinery slipping into the coma that happened during the last transition in 2014. At that time, Nelson argued that a longterm interim CEO was a toxic thing.

And he was right.

Franz never got much – other than vacations – done. Giancola – who taxpayers overpaid for – was ineffective at anything beyond helping get supervisors elected to the State Senate.

Now, it will be up to Kim to set the county agenda.

State Sen. John Moorlach – who worked with Kim for years as a department head and supervisor – believes he has the right personality to make things work.

In addition to knowing county finances and being known in Sacramento and by national financial rating agencies in New York, Kim’s “quiet demeanor” may work well with the supervisors, Moorlach said.

Yet that also may be his greatest challenge, Moorlach warned.

“He may be able to provide the necessary information for the supervisors to make a decision, but may not be a strong advocate for emphasizing the importance of their voting for the proper course of action,” Moorlach added.

It remains to be seen whether Kim will have the political skills to stand up to the supervisors while also getting them to buy into a model of the county providing innovative and cost-effective regional services.

Kim’s first challenge will be negotiating his own contract. He’ll need a long-term deal – with a stinging severance package – to have the independence to truly lead.

We’ll see if the Board of Supervisors – which already gave a nod to professionalism by offering the job to Kim – grants him that kind of contract.

Keep in mind that county supervisors next year start to come out from under the grip of the Wall Street deals that were connected to the bankruptcy debt. It will be interesting to see if they hang on to the CEO model with Kim or go to a CAO model such as used in San Diego County and is their real preference because it puts them in charge of actually running the county as opposed to just setting policy.

What Orange County has now is a sick hybrid.

Kim may largely dictate which way the county government model in Orange County moves.

Instead of having powerbrokers, like Register co-owner Eric Spitz, pitching “Orange City,” or supervisors looking to assert themselves, Kim’s challenge as CEO is to sell us all on the “county” in the “Orange County” brand.