SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - For the first time in decades, the central administrative office for California's courts will review its staff levels and pay rates in the face of criticism that both are too high. The practice of assigning court matters to expensive private firms when the administrative office employs a big legal staff will also come under scrutiny.
At its Tuesday meeting, the courts' governing Judicial Council balked at the cost estimates presented by an official from the Administrative Office of the Courts, Kenneth Couch. He wanted the AOC to do its own study of its own pay levels with help from consulting firm the Hay Group.
Couch said an AOC study would be cheaper than paying between $700,000 and $1 million for an outside firm. Couch said the option he was urging would cost $120,000 by comparison.
But council members said the $1 million seemed to be an inflated estimate, and argued that the actual cost of a study by an outside firm should be established.
"That is a thousand dollars an employee to do the study. That's too high. Let's find out what it would cost to do the study," said Alan Carlson, Orange County's court clerk.
The actual number of the staff has in the past been difficult to pin down. But current staffing metrics put the agency at 815 employees.
The council's move this week was in response to recommendations from the Strategic Evaluation Committee, an investigative body of judges appointed by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye that spent a year reviewing policy and practice at the administrative office.
"The total staff size of the AOC should be reduced significantly," said the SEC report, which found the bureaucracy to be "top heavy," with "too many high-level, highly compensated managers."
Specifically, the report found, "AOC managers and employees reported that there are numerous situations in which employees are being paid more - and in some cases, substantially more - than is appropriate in light of the duties assigned to them."
The report added, "It is evident that AOC position classifications, overall, are very highly compensated."
During the same meeting of the council, the head of that committee argued strongly against allowing telecommuting by the office's bureaucrats, as did the leader of the California Judges Association. Their arguments were rejected unanimously by the committee, in favor the office director's recommendation that work from home be allowed one day a week with some restrictions.
In light of its findings on staff pay, the SEC recommended "a comprehensive review of the AOC compensation system be undertaken as soon as possible. AOC staff should be used to conduct this review to the extent possible. If outside consultants are required, such work could be combined with the classification review that is recommended above."
Judge Charles Wachob, who chaired the SEC and is a non-voting member of the council said he was "troubled" by Couch's recommendation.
"There seems to be a push at least from Mr. Couch and perhaps other staff members to go with the Hay Group and what bothers me is there are estimates of $750,000 to $1 million and that cost range is attributed to something that was said to the SEC."
"I would hate for anybody on this Judicial Council to base a decision based on that number," Wachob added. "We had several management consultants in our SEC work and one of them mentioned having done classification studies that that was his estimate of what it might cost and somehow it wormed its way into the report."
"The point is I don't think anybody knows what a full blown classification study would cost and it would seem to me even though there might be a little bit of delay," he said, "I don't know why the Hay Group train is being driven down the tracks."
Voting members of the council agreed.
"There should be transparency. Let's take our time and do it right and delay," said Presiding Judge Ira Kaufman of Plumas County.
"As a past member of the SEC, I would say as we analyzed and looked at this particular recommendation, we found this area very troubling and very significant so that this is not something that I think we need to rush through," said Presiding Judge Sherrill Ellsworth of Riverside County.
The council ultimately voted to issue a request for proposals from private vendors to see how much an outside study of pay levels and staff size would cost.
The council also took up the thorny issue of the AOC's common practice of hiring of outside law firms to handle litigation and labor arbitration, based on another recommendation by the SEC.
The SEC report found that the legal office employed about 50 lawyers with about 50 more spread throughout other divisions.
The same report found that while it is "not in itself inappropriate" that the AOC's legal services office hires outside attorneys, "the costs and benefits of using outside counsel have not been analyzed critically in terms of overall cost-effectiveness to the judicial branch."
The council directed its liaisons to the legal services office review its use of outside attorneys to determine whether they are being used in a cost-effective way.