Nguyen’s Staff, and the budget shell game

I have written a few times on the matter of Janet Nguyen and her problems living as a fiscal conservative, but this is getting downright fishy.

Last month, December 11, 2007 to be precise, Orange County Board of Supervisor’s Chairman Chris Norby raised an issue in his Board Member comments regarding the practice of tapping County department budgets to fund staff salaries for board member offices.  Chairman Norby pointed out that the board annually approves the budgets for all Supervisor offices and that all of the budgets are appropriated upon the principle of “equity” in as much that all districts are treated and served equally. 

He expressed reservations about the practice of diverting money from department budgets to pay for Supervisors office staff without having public discussion and approval by the full Board.  He requested that staff come back with a report regarding the practice for future discussion by the Board.  You can see his comments on the video from the Board of Supervisors meeting web page starting at time index 2:57:48. 

Norby’s statement caused a flurry of inquiries and comments from the blogs. First Tomahawk at Red County/OCBlog fired this missile, then I followed with this then Peggy Lowe at Total Buzz Blog asked Tempest in a teapot or transparency? Then Matt Cunningham over at Red County/OCBlog joined the chorus of people asking questions with this post and then my follow-up on the 18th.

In an effort to get to the bottom of the story and make sure that I was getting my facts correct, I requested some information from CEO/Media Relations representative Pat Markley. I made the request on December 12th and did not hear anything at all until Wednesday, December 19th at 4:13 pm. That is where this little story turned into a real issue of transparency.

Here is what I asked:

“What is the name of the staff member paid for by HCA working for Supervisor Nguyen?

What is the annual cost of salary and benefits for that employee paid out of the HCA budget?

When did this staff member start working for the Supervisor’s office?

This is the first answer I got from Markley:

The name of the staff member paid through HCA working for Supervisor Nguyen is Executive Assistant Monica Banken. Ms. Banken started working for Supervisor Nguyen on May 11, 2007 and her salary was paid out of the HCA budget effective August 2007. The annual salary range for an Executive Assistant is $29,120 to $107,453. Because HCA started picking up her salary in August, the estimated salary cost paid out of the HCA budget for 4 months ranges from $9,707 to $35,818 plus her benefits for 4 months was approximately $9,800.

Okay, not exactly what I asked for, and certainly not that satisfying after a 7 day wait, so I followed up:

What was the position classification and name of the HCA staff person loaned to Supervisor Nguyen?

Answer: Executive Assistant is a County classification and one position was set up as a temporary loan from HCA. In no event will it go past the end of the budget year and most likely will conclude sooner. Also, there was never an HCA staff person in this position. In June, an individual filled this position for 3 weeks and then left the County. In August, Ms. Banken then filled this position.

How much HCA funding (exact dollar amount) was used from the HCA Budget to support Supervisor Nguyen’s office?

Answer: Since June, the total charges to HCA for this position have not exceeded $35,000.  We are unable to provide an exact figure because we do not provide exact salary information for County employees earning under $100,000 per year.

Were any other staff persons/positions loaned to Supervisor Nguyen’s office but not charged to her district office staff budget?

Answer: No other positions were loaned to Supervisor Nguyen’s office.

Were the costs of that transition charged to her existing First District budget? And if not, why?

Answer: The transition costs were handled in the normal budget process.

Has the matter of the funding for Supervisor Nguyen’s office staff been resolved within the constraints of her district budget and have the borrowed funds been restored to the originating agency budgets?

Answer: The position was loaned at the discretion of the CEO and the funding will be handled in the normal budget process.

Does Mr. Mauk have the authority to direct that funds budgeted to a county agency be expended to support staffing needs of Offices of Members of the Board of Supervisors?

Answer: Article 6, Sec. 1-2-64 of the County Ordinances establishes the authority for the CEO position.

Okay, this is getting silly.  What does it take to get a straight answer out of these people? Unfortunately, the answers we have received regarding this matter seem to raise more questions than they answer.

Of particular note is the statement that only one position was loaned to Supervisor Nguyen’s office in June, which was filled by a person for three weeks and then by Ms. Banken starting in August (even though she started working for Supervisor Nguyen in May). This directly contradicts CEO Mauk’s statement as reported in a Red County/OCBlog story on December 17th.

What Mauk Said

His office arranged to loan some positions — including the one from HCA — to Sup. Nguyen when she first took office. She had no 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.

The HCA staffer who accompanied that HCA position eventually returned to HCA, and the position remained open for a period of time. Mauk wasn’t exactly sure of the timing or duration, but thought the position was open for 6-8 weeks during the summer.

I can understand a rationale in loaning a staff “person” to a Supervisor’s office to get them up and running, but it defies logic that a “position”, and not a “person,” would be loaned when Supervisor Nguyen had numerous vacant positions already budgeted and that the funding for the loaned position would not be charged to her budget.

Further, I asked the very simple and direct question of how much money has been diverted from the HCA budget to support staff for Supervisor Nguyen’s office. I am not asking for the salary data for this staff person. I am asking how much in funds allocated to the Health Care Agency have been spent thus far to support  this Supervisor’s office? Since the budgets are public, and the staffing allocations are public for board offices, an answer really shouldn”t be that difficult. But for some reason they can’t, or won’t answer the question.

Markley also indicated that the CEO has the authority under Article 6, Sec. 1-2-64 of the County Ordinances to direct that funds from an agency budget be expended to support the staffing needs of another department (in this case the office of a member of the Board of Supervisors) essentially off the books.

I’m unable to find where such authority is delegated in that section of the code. In fact, such authority appears to be a violation of the purpose of the public process of budgeting for a public entity. If funding from one budget can be used to support another budget, then why have budgets at all? The section of County Code that does appear to apply to this matter is Article 6, Sec. 1-2-65 which states:

Sec. 1-2-65. Limitation upon authority

No provision of this article is intended to vest in the County Executive Officer any duty or grant to him or her any authority which is vested by law in any other County officer or employee. Nothing herein shall be construed to delegate to him or her any authority or duty required to be performed by the Board of Supervisors. The County Executive Officer shall have no power to bind, obligate or commit the County of Orange or the Board of Supervisors in connection with any contractual obligation.

Since the budgets for all departments of the County of Orange require the approval of the Board of Supervisors, such actions appear to be expressly prohibited by this section of code.

In response to my questions about the funding of the loaned position Markley responded; The position was loaned at the discretion of the CEO and the funding will be handled in the normal budget process.

Huh? What normal budget process would that be? Would that be the normal budget process that just eliminated more than 30 positions from the Health Care Agency budget? We are seven months into the fiscal year and this action initially occurred in June of 2007. When exactly was this “budget revision” planned to be addressed?

The Red County/OCBlog story I cited earlier brought up this very valid analysis of the issue here and the problem I am having with the explanation I have received thus far.

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 shouldn’t 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.

I am hoping that there is a simple explanation for the inconsistencies here. It concerns me deeply that the CEO would have the authority to move staff positions and funding for those positions from one budget to another and conceal those actual costs from public disclosure.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s me, but this is starting to smell a little fishy.

I am waiting for a response but, other than to avoid the fishy smell, I’m not holding my breath.