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California Judges Meet to Do|Damage Control in Bureaucracy

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - After a stern rebuke from legislators over the California State Auditor's conclusion that the Judicial Council failed to properly oversee its staff bureaucracy, judges on the council's top committee met Thursday to confront the auditor's conclusion that significant changes still hadn't been made.

The Judicial Council is the rulemaking body that oversees the bureaucracy of the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Judges on the Judicial Council's top committee met to address the auditor's conclusion that significant changes still have not been made.

In an audit stemming from strong criticism from judges and legislators over the AOC's spendthrift ways during a period of severe cuts to the courts, state Auditor Elaine Howle found the Administrative Office of the Courts wasted of hundreds of millions of dollars that should have gone to keeping courts running, and were not held accountable by their bosses at the Judicial Council.

In testimony to legislators Wednesday , Howle quoted from an internal investigation of the AOC by a committee of judges appointed by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. In 2012, this Strategic Evaluation Committee unleashed a scathing chronicle of mismanagement and waste, calling the bureaucracy top-heavy in management, with an oversized and overpaid staff.

The committee attached a list of 124 recommendations that included a restructuring of AOC management, cuts to staff and greater oversight from the council.

Howle said the Strategic Evaluation Committee report largely mirrored her own audit, and though it is nearly three years old, her audit team found little discernible change at the bureaucracy.

"We believe, based on the history of what we've seen, so many of the recommendations we have made were made three years ago and there hasn't been significant change," Howle said.

On Thursday, the judges who sit on the council's Executive and Planning Committee combed through the Strategic Evaluation Committee's recommendations, and seemed fraught over the deep disagreement with the auditor over recommendations they thought were complete.

"It might be safer and more honest to simply say where we are in the process. If it takes a little longer to do it, so be it; we're not going to be criticized," Judge Charles Wachob from Placer County said. In addition to his membership on the Executive and Planning Committee, Wachob was chairman of the Strategic Evaluation Committee.

AOC Director Martin Hoshino said the council should mind the difference between oversight and supervision.

"I get the struggle that is going on here," Hoshino said. "The council is appropriately in an oversight role. We have to be careful that we don't put the council in an unrealistic role of direct supervision for the actual activities, actions to be taken, data and information. That rests with the organization, the staff here, to make sure there's a sufficient amount of information so the proper amount of scrutiny and questions can be asked."

The judges decided to affix to each recommendation an update on its progress and what actions have taken place, all of which will be posted on the Judicial Council website.

"The public who is grading our work as judicial overseers would be well-served and better informed," Wachob said. "Something like that will go along way toward diffusing the criticism we get for not doing our job on this."


The committee also heard updates from the AOC on its staffing numbers and budget. Howle had taken particular issue with the AOC using temporary employees to circumvent a hiring freeze, which, although legal, infuriated judges who saw mass layoffs of local trial court employees for three years during the state's financial crisis. The AOC compounded this ill will by stating publicly that it was instituting the hiring freeze, giving the impression that it was sacrificing along with the courts.

Judge Brian McCabe of Merced County, who helped write the Strategic Evaluation Committee report, said Thursday: "Quite frankly, we were appalled. During some of our interviews, some [AOC] directors candidly said, 'We gotta do what we gotta do to get the work done,' and we found it disturbing that there was an admission that they were subverting the publicly stated policy."

At its height, AOC employee numbers exceeded 1,000. The AOC's employment cap now sits at 805, AOC Chief of Staff Jody Patel said.

"We don't technically have a hard freeze like we did a couple years ago, but we have a cap we maintain and we will not go over 805. That includes regular folks, contractors and temps. It's kind of an arbitrary freeze," Patel said.

McCabe said the number is in line with the number of positions authorized by the Legislature, but that it was never meant to be firm.

"There was lively debate about what the cap should be. Ultimately, it was the committee's feeling that if the Legislature tells us, 'Here is the number of positions we're authorizing to you,' then why are you exceeding that number?" McCabe said.

He continued: "Remember the context in which this report was done. It was done because it had never been done and there had been unplanned growth, and we thought it needed to be downsized. But this is not a static organization. If all of these policies, procedures and controls are put in place then you have the mechanisms for planned growth, smart growth, and those numbers could [be] exceed[ed]."

The executive committee also turned to the AOC budget, which has been widely criticized as incomprehensible, even to budget experts like the auditor.

"When we did the SEC [Strategic Evaluation Committee] report, we heard up and down the state from our colleagues, both in administration and on the bench, that if they took the time to try to understand the branch budget, it was impossible. You couldn't go on the website, you couldn't track funds from one year to the other. There was a complete failure to have decent transparency in the budget," Wachob said.

"I accept the efforts that have been done. I think there is improvement," he continued. "But what do we tell people, my colleagues, who still ask me from different courts in the state, 'What the heck is being done? I still can't understand it. I don't know where the money is going. I don't get it.' What do we tell those folks, and more importantly, the people we serve? What further efforts can we expect?"

AOC Fiscal Services Director Zlatko Theodorovic replied that his department is revising the way the budget is displayed, though it is hard to condense it into a couple of lines.

"What is the balance between, every constituent wants to see their dollars, and we're being held accountable for that, and it being overly complex? But we'll work on that, absolutely," Theodorovic said.

Patel added: "I'm still a big believer that we can simplify it. We have a timeline we provided to the State Auditor last Friday in terms of when that will be completed." She said the public should start to see a simpler budget displayed on the Judicial Council's website by May.

Both the SEC and Auditor Howle had strongly recommended that the AOC get input from local trial courts before it spent any more money on statewide projects. That urging was borne out a controversial $500 million software project called the Court Case Management System, a project that Howle audited and found had grown out of control.

In response, the AOC developed guidelines to analyze future projects to include input from the courts.

But Theodorovic acknowledged that the guidelines haven't been used.

"To date, since we haven't been doing anything of a major initiative, we haven't actually engaged at this point," Theodorovic said.

Patel said: "If there was a statewide project, like CCMS, that kind of a project would go through this type of analysis to ensure that: one, it's needed; secondly, that the funding for a multiyear statewide project is available and secured. Those kinds of attributes are what would do our analysis on and bring the council."

Justice Jim Humes' shocked remark drew laughter from the group.

"I'm new to this game. When I look at this, I think, 'Holy Jesus, this stuff wasn't being done before?' What was going on?"

Patel replied: "To be direct, it was not being done consistently. It was being done for certain projects and not across the board. And it should be."

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