A Long Ways to Go

     For all the worries that it would soft-pedal the problems, the 11-judge committee hit hard in its massive analysis of the Administrative Office of the Courts.
     Courthouse News reporter Maria Dinzeo called me on Saturday over Memorial Day weekend — after I had just gone for an ocean swim — saying the story could not wait.
     “This report is scathing as hell,” she then emailed. “I’m only 10 pages into it and it’s so damn quotable. It even says the AOC had 1,100 employees in 2010-2011, which we reported and were accused of misrepresenting.”
     And indeed the Strategic Evaluation Committee’s report covers a lot of ground and delves into an array of shortcomings at the administrative office that are impressive by their sheer number. But the matter that most intrigued me was how the money controlled by the bureaucrats is doled out.
     The adage “follow the money” tends to provide good results for reporters looking into an organization and, when we could get financial information, we have focused on the issue of how financial decisions are made at the administrative office.
     For example, Dinzeo’s story showing that, based on administrative office numbers, Californians would be spending $240,000 a day on a big IT project — every single day from now until half way through 2014 — was a shocker. A judge called it “a nuclear bomb.”
     But we had consistently heard commentary from judges saying that the bureaucrats played favorites with the trial courts based largely on the head clerk. So little was disclosed about funding decisions by the central office, however, that we could not track the story down.
     So the biggest eye opener of the report was the confirmation that financial decisions were made “on an ad-hoc basis” by the administrative director. Said the report, “This type of approval process is consistent with criticisms that AOC budget decisions sometimes were made on the basis of whether division directors were regarded as favorites of the Administrative Director.”
     But the report did not get into specifics. So the veil of mystery remains about the actual favorites, about what projects and what courts were favored through the ad-hoc system.
     You can bet Los Angeles was not one of them.
     The court has fought the administrative office on every attempt by the bureaucrats to impose a central control on the trial courts through technology, both on the centralized financial software and the centralized case management software.
     The dispute over the financial software came to a head with the central bureaucrats threatening to hold back funds and Los Angeles officials making it plain that the bureaucrats did not have that authority and, furthermore, that they would be “misappropriating” public money if they did.
     It is fair to characterize those terms, in the context of the normally polite and formalistic exchanges of bureaucrats, as fightin’ words.
     So that is the next hill to climb on the way to reform of the administrative office, putting in place a system that shows how the money is spent and ensures a fair process for making those decisions, as opposed to the current feudal system of fear and favor.
     The question remains whether that hill will be climbed.
     In the wake of the report, most trial judges and most observers looked with understanding on the chief justice’s effort to buck up the staff at the administrative office. But her argument that a lot of change has already taken place sounded familiar.
     For example, the state auditor rebuked the administrators last year over financial decisions and statements regarding the bureaucracy’s boondoggle of an IT system. Literally within minutes, the administrators put out a press release saying they had already implemented most of the auditor’s recommendations.
     It would be fair to say that was not true, based on the findings of the judges’s recent report, which banged a lot harder on the same basic points as the auditor, about lack of accuracy, transparency and professionalism in the financial decisions by the administrative office.
     In a video circulated to the administrative staff, the chief justice said, “The report is a snapshot in time about an AOC that in some ways has substantially changed since the SEC began its work.”
     The judge who heads the committee that wrote the report, Charles Wachob, was careful to not overstate the amount of change that has taken place. He told Dinzeo, “Several division directors left and some divisions were consolidated, so yes, I guess there has been some change.”
     That leaves an awful lot of change still to go.

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