California Judges Fight Bureaucrats For Info

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A judge’s attempt to get a straight answer out of California’s embattled court bureaucracy has resulted in four weeks of stalling and partial answers on the total number of bureaucrats and how much they are paid.
     “I can get a list of all the judges in the state in an hour,” said Sacramento Judge Kevin McCormick. “I find it impossible to believe they can’t provide me a list of who works for them in a time frame of less than a month.”
     McCormick planned to use the information in answering a survey sent out last month by an overhaul committee set up by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and headed by Justice Arthur Scotland.
     That group, called the Strategic Evaluation Committee, is currently looking to see if the bureaucracy described by some legislators as bloated can be put on a diet. The group’s work has taken on urgency with the budget slashing that hit the courts this year and that is expected to result in closed courtrooms around California.
     To McCormick, who wanted the numbers in order to answer a survey by the overhaul committee, the task seemed simple enough. But a set of emails up down and around the Administrative Office of the Courts showed it was not.
     McCormick began by contacting Bill Vickrey on July 21.
     McCormick wrote, “Before I can intelligently evaluate and recommend what might make appropriate fiscal sense, I need to know precisely what actually exists in terms of personnel support connected with or provided to the AOC.” He then requested the a list of “every employee (temporary or permanent), consultant, independent contractor, and/or person paid directly or indirectly by or through the AOC.”
     Finally, McCormick wrote, “I also would appreciate your providing the current pay and benefits information for each of the above individuals.”
     Vickrey replied, saying he was shifting the request over to Jody Patel, head of the AOC’s northern regional office, one of the divisions whose need to exist is being questioned by the overhaul committee.
     That move angered the head of the committee, Justice Scotland. He replied to McCormick with a cc to Vickrey, telling the outgoing director in no uncertain terms that it was his direct responsibility to provide the information.
     “By this e-mail, with a cc to Bill, I am informing Bill that it is his responsibility, or the responsibility of the Human Resources Division at Bill’s direction, to provide you with the public information you seek. Thus, I am directing Bill to have the AOC promptly comply with your request.”
     Two weeks later, Judge McCormick let Justice Scotland know that the administrative agency had still not answered his questions.
     “The un-redacted payroll of the AOC and the names and pay rates of those employees (temporary or permanent), consultants, independent contractors, and/or persons paid directly or indirectly by or through the AOC certainly must exist somewhere so it can be easily accessed by a computer program,” he urged, with a cc to Vickrey and interim director Ron Overholt.
     This time his request was answered by Ken Kann who has been described as the gatekeeper for the administrators. Kann was part of a general housecleaning this summer that saw the resignations of director Vickrey, Kann and Sheila Calabro who pushed a hugely expensive IT system for the courts.
     Kann promised to “provide a response as quickly as possible.”
     But nearly a week later, the information was still not forthcoming.
     “The AOC’s refusal to provide ANY information in compliance with the request, its failure to adequately communicate (internally and with me), the apparent reluctance to divulge specifics of the AOC’s actual size and growth rate, and the dismissive language used in your previous reply (indicating you will refer it to the ‘public information’ department who will provide me with ‘an official acknowledgment of receipt of the request’) are all classic examples of why many judges throughout the state perceive the AOC to be bloated, overly bureaucratic and inefficient,” wrote McCormick on August 8.
     “No bureaucracy has a motive to assist in an evaluation of its operations when a likely result is a determination that it is overstaffed, inefficient, or has assumed duties unconnected to the core services it was designed to perform,” he pointed out.
     McCormick closed with, “I am truly at a loss as to how to secure the requested information in order to generate a thoughtful, well-reasoned and informed reply to Justice Scotland ‘s survey. The Chief Justice indicated that the SEC was created to ‘conduct an in-depth review of the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) and its organizational structure to promote transparency, accountability, efficiency in providing services to the courts.’… The AOC’s failure to provide the requested information directly frustrates the accomplishment of the stated goals of the Chief Justice.”
     By August 9, McCormick received a partial answer from the public information office for the agency. But that note also said the agency could not provide a list of the consultants and independent contractors until August 22, well after the deadline for the overhaul committee’s survey.
     McCormick questioned the credibility of that partial answer. “The problem I have with your reply is it is far after the survey information is due to the Strategic Evaluation Committee. Are you seriously telling me that the AOC has grown to be so expansive and unwieldy that in order to provide information identifying who works for your agency it takes over a month? If that is actually true, perhaps that speaks volumes about whether the bureaucracy intended to provide administrative support to the courts has expanded beyond any concept of reasonableness.”
     Kann responded in curt language.
     “Judge McCormick, on Tuesday of this week we provided responsive information and clarification as to what we do not have for some of your information requests,” said the outgoing official. “At the moment, as we advised you in the Tuesday response, August 22 is the best estimate for when we can provide a further response to your remaining requests.”
     McCormick said in an interview that he is still awaiting a complete list of AOC employees and their salaries.
     He said he knows for a fact that the AOC employs over 1,000, but the partial list provided to him names only 990.
     “That doesn’t touch consultants, independent contractors, a whole range of things,” McCormick.
     Inquiries from Courthouse News earlier this year produced similarly vague results. And a number of outstanding document requests on topics from contracts with Deloitte Consulting, new hires, budget numbers and court construction plans have either stalled or been refused.
     An AOC spokesperson told Courthouse News earlier this summer, “Since May, we have been reducing the number of contract workers because of the current budget cuts, but I do not have those figures readily available. Similarly, the number of AOC employees have fallen as people have left the agency and they have not been replaced due to the ongoing hiring freeze. I do not have figures on the number of employees that the AOC has today but it’s less than 877.”
     The spokesman added, “If you can wait until next week, I can provide you with up-to-date figures.”
     Those figures were never provided.
     While it is now too late for Judge McCormick to use the figures in his survey answer, he said he plans “to do a thorough review” of the numbers when and if they are sent to him.
     “The bottom line is this,” he said, “they know what is being done is an analysis of their expenditures and the size of their organization. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out they’re not motivated to provide the information.”

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