The Santa Barbara County government employs a very awkward model of governance.
Specifically, there are five elected officials who each serve as a supervisor of a district. None of them is required to have professional qualifications to hold the office, and the job can scarcely be considered full time.
These five county supervisors wield civilian oversight to an empire of 4,460 employees and an annual budget of $1.4 billion.
Much of the authority wielded and services rendered by various county departments involve all county residents including those living in cities. Many of the board-appointed department heads are professionals in their field of expertise. The department heads report directly to the supervisors to some degree, albeit the county CEO, Mona Miyasato, is responsible for day-to-day operations and presenting recommendations to the supervisors.
The oddity? There are five other elected professionals who run their own departments and, despite the fact they are elected at large, they themselves serve at the mercy of the board of supervisors to a great extent.
These officials are:
— District Attorney Joyce Dudley, who prosecutes crimes throughout the county.
— Sheriff-Coroner Bill Brown, who runs the countywide jail and oversees patrol services throughout most of the county.
— Treasurer-Tax Collector Harry Hagen, who collects taxes and distributes the same to other governmental agencies.
— Auditor Controller Betsy Schaffer, who serves as a controller and audits county government.
— Clerk-Recorder-Assessor Joe Holland, who is responsible for assessing taxes on all properties in the county in addition to overseeing most elections and issuing various official documents including marriage licenses and death certificates.
These officials have professional credentials to qualify for their position. They all started at the bottom and worked their way up in their profession before successfully running for office.
The odd relationship between these 10 elected officials arises from the fact that the supervisors have overall control of how much money each department is allocated, including those departments run by their fellow elected officials. Subsequently, however, the elected department heads have full discretion on how to spend the money allocated once the budget is approved. And therein lies a boatload of angst and frustration.
To be blunt, the supervisors like these fellow elected officials keep their heads low and their mouths shut even though most of them are not receiving adequate resources to do the job they too were elected to do. That’s because the county supervisors would rather spend tens of millions on politically determined pet projects.
It is a disservice to the public that our supervisors often treat the elected department heads as staff — or even worse than staff!
Recently the Board of Supervisors gave the appointed department heads a 5% raise. In turn, they offered the elected department heads a 2.5% raise, telling them to “take one for the team” since most of the rank-and-file employees were only getting 2.5%.
Whereas, I typically applaud the supervisors holding the line on raises, this really rankled the elected officials and for good reason.
District Attorney Dudley pointed out that two other lawyers who serve as appointed department heads, County Counsel Rachel Van Mullem and Public Defender Tracy Macuga, were making more than she did even though they had significantly less seniority on the job, fewer employees to manage and fewer cases to handle.
Moreover, Ms. Dudley is retiring, and one of the reasons why is that the supervisors have been undercutting her ability to prosecute crime by way of budget machinations, including deferring too much authority to the public defender, whose goal in life is to keep criminals out of jail.
Ergo, the supervisor’s goal of so-called equity in the criminal justice reform movement is overrated and overwrought at the expense of public safety.
Andy Caldwell is the COLAB executive director and host of “The Andy Caldwell Show,” airing 3 to 5 p.m. weekdays on KZSB AM 1290, the News-Press radio station.