Janet Nguyen’s Staff Infection

There’s an infection festering over on the fifth floor of the Hall of Administration. It began with a quip from Board Chairman Norby last Tuesday about an unnamed Supervisor using Health Care Agency (HCA) funds to pay for office personnel.  The infection of the hubris bacteria started to grow when it was revealed that Supervisor Nguyen was the offending Supervisor. Bloggers on the LiberalOC and Red County started asking questions, but few clear answers have been found.

Matt Cunningham over at Red County OCBlog posted on Monday about his conversation with County CEO Tom Mauk regarding the Janet Nguyen staffer issue.

Here’s what Mauk told Cunningham:

His office arranged to loan some positions — including the one from HCA — to Sup. Nguyen when she first took office. She had now staff and needed to get up-to-speed immediately. He said it is of the highest priority for the County CEO to ensure the supervisors can effectively serve their districts, and took responsibility for the decision to loan the position to Sup. Nguyen’s office.

Hmmm, Very Interesting.

First, it looks like we’re dealing with more than one position. That prompts the question of how many positions were “loaned” and whether those positions were paid for out of Nguyen’s First District budget or out of the budgets of the agencies that loaned the positions?

It is possible that in this case Mauk was speaking of people rather than positions but that would be inconsistent with another statement he made to Cunningham; his office’s “focus is on the position, not the person filling it. That’s the district’s responsibility.”

So here are a few burning questions that still remain to be clarified by the CEO’s office an addition to the new one added above:

  • What was the position classification of the HCA staffer(s) assigned to Nguyen’s office?
  • How much HCA funding was spent in salary and benefits for the staffer assigned to support Nguyen’s office?
  • How long did the loaned staff member(s) work for Supervisor Nguyen?
  • Were funds from any other county agencies used to pay for loaned staff?
  • If so, what was the cost of that?
  • And finally, does the CEO really have the authority to direct county agencies to expend funds from their budgets in support of the political offices of Members of the Board of Supervisors?

Matt Cunningham raised another good point in his post Monday:

Transparency At Stake

I’m OK with loaning the positions to Sup. Nguyen when she first took office. Like Mauk said, she had no staff and needed people in place to get her up to speed and enable her office to function and serve constituents.

But it’s been nine months since she was sworn in as supervisor, and once the HCA staffer had returned to HCA, the position should have gone with her. At that point, Sup. Nguyen should have gone to her Board colleagues and made the case to supplementing her office budget to better deal with her caseload.

As Supervisor Chris Norby has pointed out — as well as OCEA General Manager Nick Berardino on Red County Radio — there’s a transparency issue at stake here. Supervisors should have staff positions that are “off-the-books” so to speak. Unless this practice is nipped in the bud, it can become the camel’s nose under then tent, because once one supervisor uses it to augment his or her staff, other board members will likely follow suit over time. Since staff and budget are significant denominations in the political currency of power, such an eventuality is more likely than not. And the rationales being advanced to justify using Health Care Agency funds to underwrite Janet’s extra staff position are so elastic any other supervisor could drive a truckload of extra staffers through it.

At that point, a supervisor’s public office budget becomes unreliable as a means for the public to determine how much a supervisor is spending on their office operations. You could literally have a situation where a Supervisor shifts funding for some office positions to various county agencies on the pretext of the nature of their issue responsibilities, while claiming to voters to have reduced his or her office budget and staff.

The Board needs to quickly and firmly push this particular camel’s nose back out of the tent.

Well, I can’t call it any better than Matt did on this one.

LiberalOC has asked the CEO’s office to respond to the burning questions I have raised. Some of those questions go back six days. What initially may have been a little tempest in a tea pot is now developing into more of an issue than I could ever have imagined.

Matt pointed out in a separate post that the Board will discuss today Supervisor Nguyen’s allocation of more than $1 million in District Priority and Capital Project grants as provided for in the current budget. Initially the full amount was recommended, but on Thursday, the agenda item was changed to remove one grant of $100,000 (#19).

In order to defeat this infection before it spreads too far; maybe Supervisor Nguyen can get her colleagues to agree to let her use that money to repay the Health Care Agency for the borrowed staffing budget?

Just a thought.

  1 comment for “Janet Nguyen’s Staff Infection

  1. Anonymous
    January 4, 2008 at 3:27 pm

    Why don’t you make it a regular practice to send these blogs, etc.
    to the Governor’s office??? He does not have jurisdiction but
    has the clout to refer it to somewhere helpful and get something
    done. Don’t you think??

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