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Monday, February 18 , 2019, 5:09 am | Fair 46º


Supervisors Postpone Vote on Paring Power of County CEO

Board's sentiment appears to be that the attempt at streamlining decision-making wasn't as smooth a process as intended.

The vote isn’t official yet, but it looks as if Santa Barbara County CEO Mike Brown’s sole authority to hire and fire some county department heads may revert back to the Board of Supervisors.

The possible shift in power came as a result of an agenda item put forth by Supervisors Doreen Farr and Janet Wolf, which amends a county ordinance to require approval of such decisions by the board. As part of the amendment, restrictions preventing department heads from directly contacting the supervisors may also be removed.

“A review of an ordinance is simply good policy,” Farr said.

Last amended in 2005, Chapter 2, Article X of the Santa Barbara County Code established that the County Executive Officer had authority over the administration of county government, including operations, budget requests and the selection, evaluation, appointment, suspension and termination of certain department heads, including those of General Services, Housing and Community Development, Human Resources, Planning and Development, Public Health and Public Works.

But while the intention, and the effect, was to streamline county operations and prevent certain department heads from lobbying supervisors in their favor, the structure, which gave Brown more decision-making capacity and made him the conduit of information between the supervisors and the departments, was also the subject of concern over lack of communication and transparency.

“I feel like we’ve become figureheads,” commented Wolf.

The change to the CEO’s authority to hire and fire is relatively minor: Department directors would still answer to Brown, and he still has the responsibility of evaluating them and recommending actions to take. Final authority would rest upon the Board of Supervisors.

But the decision to make the amendment also comes at a time when the county is actively seeking a new planning and development director, a high-level position that has been vacant for the last four years.

It was the possible reopening of direct communication lines between supervisors and department heads that got people talking. Those in favor of it praised the move for its attempt to bring county government closer to the people.

“It eliminates the insulation between voters and the county,” said Marc Chytilo, an attorney who has worked on land-use issues in the county for decades.

For Greg Mohr the news that there might be more open communication was welcome.

“Things had gotten so dysfunctional that I couldn’t take it professionally and personally,” said the former Planning and Development employee.

But for some who remembered the way it was before the 2005 amendment, reverting to the old way of doing things was not so good.

“People are going to go back to doing business in the back room,” said COLAB’s Andy Caldwell, referring to the efforts of department heads to curry favor with the supervisors.

And, in this time of financial insecurity, said former Santa Barbara City Councilman Dan Secord, who lost to Wolf in a race for the 2nd District seat, making such a change is not a good idea.

“To try to mess with the administration at this time is short-sighted,” he said.

But for the fact that 5th District Supervisor Joe Centeno had not had enough time to evaluate the proposed amendments, the vote would likely have gone in favor of the amendments to the county code, with the South Coast supervisors in favor. At first blush, Centeno was against what he saw as the weakening of the CEO position.

“If you want a strong administrator, you better give that individual the tools that he or she needs to do the job,” he said.

Fourth District Supervisor Joni Gray, meanwhile, had already registered her dissent.

On the suggestion of 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal, the board delayed a vote until its March 3 meeting.

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