Santana: It’s Time to Talk Change for OC Government

It might actually be their most honest moment ever.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson and state Sen. John Moorlach – two conservatives who often talk about how much they miss the private sector – apparently want to stick around public life a bit longer.

Tuesday they’ll propose that the county supervisors’ term limit be extended by one term, allowing a supervisor to serve three consecutive terms for a total of 12 years in office.

“When term limit policies are brought forward, many times public officials must learn on the job and are forced from office before attaining the knowledge and skill set required before they can make substantive positive changes,” wrote Moorlach late last month in asking supervisors to consider the idea.

Now while some conservatives, like Flash Report Publisher Jon Fleischman, are raging hot over the idea – as term limits have now become a Republican mantra – it is important to listen to what Moorlach and Nelson are really saying.

Most supervisors don’t know what they are doing.

And just about when they figure out the job, it’s time to move on to the next electoral office.

That creates a dangerous trend.

It’s a fact that Orange County residents are now governed by the most politicized board of supervisors in history.

You get crime victims’ monuments at Irvine Regional Park for Supervisor Todd Spitzer (who is vying for DA) and statues to a Vietnamese general, a Mexican hero and Ronald Reagan for County Supervisor Andrew Do (who is up for re-election in November) at Mile Square Park.

Meanwhile, Supervisor Michelle Steel has produced a dog beach area and Supervisors’ Chairman Lisa Bartlett has become an expert at pet events.

Nelson is still working on getting a bike lane loop finished after nearly eight years in office.

All fluff. All the time.

Meanwhile, our supervisors ignore the real problems they were hired to fix, like homelessness, civilian oversight over police, infrastructure spending, social services and health care.

All these agencies run on auto pilot.

That is until it’s time to publicly embarrass a county department head at the weekly supervisors’ meeting, complaining that government doesn’t work.

Now keep in mind that old-time supervisors didn’t have term limits.

They got elected. And then did what they thought was right.

That ended when they bankrupted the county in 1994.

Ever since then, supervisors have been talking about reforming local government here in Orange County.

Term limits is basically the only reform they ever get to.

Debating what else to do has become a bit of a sport with no game day.

Nearly twenty years after the anniversary of the bankruptcy and the reform panel anointed to plot out solutions, the best supervisors can do is to try to figure out how to stick around longer for a job they say they hate.

We need a real discussion about how our local government should be working.

We are, after all, driving around a car – county government – built in 1889.

Ironically, this week, I’ll be joining Rick Rieff, the Orange County Register’s opinion Guru Brian Calle and Common Cause’s Bill Mitchell on Inside OC, broadcast on PBS so Cal, to talk about what kinds of structural changes are really needed in local government.

Here’s a tip.

We need much more complex fixes than term limits.

We need a public that is engaged because while you weren’t watching, your politicians – Republicans and Democrats – gave you a police state out of simple inertia.

Most of your cities are increasingly moving to have their discretionary budgets primarily focused on police and fire services.

That is what offers key political endorsements for politicians so that’s where the discretionary budget focus in local government has increasingly moved in recent decades.

With tight budgets and given what’s happening across our nation on police relations, many politicians at the city level – note Santa Ana and Westminster most recently – have said they will cut every other service rather than police.

At the county level, the sheriff’s department and the district attorney’s office are already taking up an increasing portion of the discretionary budget.

Which prompts the question, what do we need county supervisors and council members really to do if so much of our discretionary budget spending is public safety and the rest is pass-through mandates from the federal and state government?

At the county do we need all five supervisors and their million dollar staff budget each?

Is there a better way to spend $5 million?

Most entitlements for residential development in county areas are done.

Supervisors now only meet on average, a few times a month.

Should they be part-timers? Do we need a countywide elected CEO?

Most importantly, state policies like ballot initiatives like Prop 47 and legislation like AB 109 have changed how we jail residents – mainly because of the costs of jailing them.

Yet we can’t expect to put police officers in the midst of social upheaval and just ask them to keep things calm by themselves.

Instead of complaining about new approaches like Prop 47 and AB 109, local politicians need to get to work and actually turn on the other levers of government – things like social services, health care, parks, open space and libraries – in order to turn things around in problem neighborhoods, where we are spending so much of our public safety budget.

Getting at root problems actually solves things.

The rest, like talking term limits, is deck chairs.