Tuesday, June 07, 2005 | This is part two of a two-part series.

Solutions: As Voice and its readers look forward to reform and recovery for the city of San Diego, this is the second of a two-part insight into what San Diegans and our city government can learn from the ten-year recovery and reform program that has made San Diego County government a model county.

Outsourcing of county jobs, notably in information technology, ranks as one of the largest such U.S. program contracting with nonprofits; the county holds 600 outsource contracts in Health and Human Services.

Outsourcing led to bitter union labor fights five years ago, and then to intense negotiations. It has grown into one of the largest public outsourcing programs among U.S. counties, yielding, Walter Ekard says, immense savings. The county’s primary financial challenge now is that of the state of California: Four of every five dollars in the County budget comes through state grants, predominantly for Health and Human Services.

“This week,” Ekard says, “we will propose outsourcing county printing. We find we’re paying a nickel a page for our printing against a penny if we farm it out.”

Ekard retains tight control to achieve efficient and economic administration. One lesson Larry Prior taught was to avoid the cover-up. Every one of the 17,000 county employees was put on warning that if they made mistakes and promptly reported them, they would be dealt with fairly. But if they sought to hide blunders, they were subject to dismissal.

“This way,” Ekard says now, “we solve our problems in public. I am never surprised by errors. We operate a thousand facilities all over the county. We have 17,000 employees. On any given day, 500 things will go wrong. But we solve our problems in public. I’m loyal and expect them to be. You can’t fix it if you don’t tell. I make a mistake or they do, and we come forward. If they don’t, they’re out.”

Ekard cites his own mistake in the collapse of touch-screen voting machines in a recent county election: “As quickly as I could, I got an op-ed piece into the media to say it was my fault and it wouldn’t happen again. I do that so that others will do the same. We can’t hide problems. The supervisors are our bosses, and they won’t panic if they are well prepared.”

With a sterling model in public government close at hand, it should not be surprising that the county of San Diego offers to lend management personnel to City Hall in the coming workout of its financial chaos. Yet it does surprise, because rivalry in government entities and governmental favoritism darken prospects for the regional understanding and cooperation that will be vital to achieve common goals in law enforcement, zoning and environmental issues, and construction of any major facility such as a new airport.

(It appears now, for instance, that the San Diego City Council purposefully blundered in 2001 in rejecting a $2.1 billion proposal by a Lehmann Brothers partnership to rehabilitate and lease the dilapidated city-owned Brown Field on Otay Mesa. The field was losing money for the city. It would have become a freight airport and industrial park intended to provide 10,000 jobs. But residential developers controlling Otay Mesa raw land, in Councilman Ralph Inzunza’s district, fought the airport, led by the Pardee and McMillin construction firms. Mayor Murphy, seeking to justify the rejection, scheduled a City Council public hearing – not on neutral territory, but in Otay Mesa. The event was heavily orchestrated by Inzunza partisans, building contractor employees and airport opponents, with even the parish priest stepping forward to protest the airport. The modus operandi was not unlike the one that three city councilmen, including Inzunza, appear to have pursued in their abortive attempt, in behalf of Las Vegas ownership, to solicit San Diego community protests in order to persuade City Council to soften regulations on bodily contact in strip clubs.)

“Larry (Prior) and the supervisors worked together to set the table for standards and performance measurement, which is now the trademark of San Diego County government. The (five) supervisors deserve immense credit for knowing who to hire and what to do and keeping politics out of county administration.

“After Larry’s departure, it was vital to continue to insist, as he had, that county employees completely forget how things had formerly been done, and to concentrate on meeting the new standards.

“Voters liked the discipline, the fiscal sanity that they saw in the remodeled county government. Such discipline has made it possible to avoid deferred maintenance costs.

“Larry had the full support of the supervisors in this reform. The trash system the county had tried to set up had instead brought it down. Larry oversaw the sale of that system, and gave us an opportunity to climb back. But it all started with a seasoned group of elected officials – in the county’s case, the five supervisors. With that, Larry could tear down and rebuild the county structure.

And the veteran county supervisor Dianne Jacob adds:

“Think of it in terms of today’s city problems. The county was almost bankrupt. But there was a solid majority for reform. We five elected supervisors made the decision to hire Prior. We decided he was the best person out there to get us straightened out. We all worked at it. We all had to.”

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