Courts’ Accountability Committee OK’s $5.6 Million Tech Request

     (CN) – In a searing report on California’s court bureaucracy last month, the state auditor singled out the financial accountability committee for failing in its mission. Last week, the same committee approved a multi-million-dollar request for a statewide technology project, inviting a fresh blast of criticism from trial judges who said it looked to be a waste of money.
     The tech project would cost $5.6 million to build data exchanges between the courts, law enforcement agencies and the Judicial Branch Statistical Information System. The project would rely almost entirely on contractors who also make up the bulk of the cost.
     The same type of exchange was a heavily-promoted feature of an earlier statewide tech project, the Court Case Management System, which also relied heavily on outside contractors in spending $500 million before it was abandoned.
     The latest spending idea brought immediate comparison to much smaller requests from impoverished courts in Northern California that were unanimously shut down last year by the Judicial Council, which is chaired by the state’s chief justice who also appoints most of its members.
     “It’s an awful lot of money when they couldn’t spare $72,000 for Siskiyou County,” said Judge Greg Dohi of Los Angeles.
     He was referring to the hat-in-hand visit to San Francisco by judges from Siskiyou Superior Court in the far north of California. In addition to rejecting their very modest request, the council voted unanimously against $82,000 for Mono and $300,000 for Del Norte County, all courts trying to avoid firing their employees.
     The presiding judges in those courts were unavailable for comment on the latest vote in favor of a much larger sum for contract employees on a tech project. The only two phone numbers for Mono Superior Court both lead to an automated message that says, “Due to significant cutbacks in our court’s budget, we are not answering any public phone calls.”

Set Up to Fail
     Judge Michele Flurer of Los Angeles, who voted against the latest tech request, said in an interview, “I had insufficient information to approve it. In concept it’s a good proposal but I just want to make sure that we have sufficient information to make that decision. I want a business case.”
     She added, “I’m secretary treasurer for the California Judges Association and I’d like to see good support for any money being spent on behalf of the courts.”
      The new tech project will cost $5.6 million over five years, to allow trial courts to send information to the DMV, Department of Social Services, Highway Patrol, Department of Justice and the JBSIS, for judicial statistics. It will require eight new contract workers, costing $3.2 million of the total.
     The proposal to hire more contract workers for the court administrative office runs contrary to specific points made in the state auditor’s lengthy critique, and it runs counter to the position taken very recently by the accountability committee itself.
     “The AOC’s use of contractors, temporary workers, and consultants has resulted in significantly higher costs than the AOC would have incurred had it hired state employees to perform this work,” wrote Auditor Elaine Howle. Throughout her report, she referred to the 800-strong, San Francisco-based agency by its former name, the Administrative Office of the Courts.
     She estimated that if state employees were used rather than contractors, the savings over three years would total $21 million. The auditor also said the accountability committee was set up for failure.
     “Even though the Judicial Council created the Advisory Committee on Financial Accountability and Efficiency to promote transparency, accountability, efficiency, and understanding of the AOC and the judicial branch, the Judicial Council did not ensure that the financial advisory committee fulfilled its intended purpose,” said Howle.
     The accountability committee is chaired by Justice Richard Huffman who was originally named to the Judicial Council in 1997 by former chief justice Ron George, and later appointed to chair the accountability committee by the current chief justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye.
     Just a few months ago, in August, he told the council that the court administrative office should reduce spending on technology consultants. He also referred to his own committee as the “appointed nitpickers for the council.”
     The administrative office of the courts, which now calls itself simply “the staff,” currently includes 160 information technology employees, including 51 working on contracts. But an IT division manager said that wasn’t enough.
     Systems manager Mark Yuan told the committee he has only one full time and three contract workers who can work on the data exchanges. “These five exchanges are purely brand new development projects that don’t exist today so the effort required to develop the project is significantly greater,” he said.
      That argument did not sit well with judges from the 500-member Alliance of California Judges who over the years have blasted the court agency’s enormous spending on tech projects as a “boondoggle,” the equivalent to buying a “Yugo,” and a wrong-headed waste of funds.
     “Surely they could move five people around,” said Judge Dohi who is an Alliance director. “The audit specifically warned against excessive reliance on consultants. Regardless of whether they are consultants or full-time employees, the last thing the Judicial Council should be doing is adding to a staff that has been roundly criticized as bloated.”

Staff Override
     Last week’s accountability committee meeting was run by the vice-chair, Justice Kathleen O’Leary from Orange County, in Huffman’s absence. After Flurer questioned the financial merit of the $5.6 million project, O’Leary said the matter before the committee was simply a budget request as opposed to an authorization for actual spending.
     At that point, Curt Soderlund, the court agency’s chief administrative officer, interjected, “We did talk to the Department of Finance and programs like this one that have statewide implications, that’s what they’re in support of.”
     But a spokesman for the governor’s finance department would not say whether the department supported the project. In an email, H.D. Palmer said, “If there were now a proposal that the Judicial Council would want to submit, we would consider it in the context of the May Revision.”
     The May Revision refers to a final adjustment in next year’s budget before it goes into effect at the beginning of July.
     Even if the data exchange funds were included in that version of Governor Jerry Brown’s massive California budget, they would still need to pass through a budget committee run by Assemblymember Reginald Jones-Sawyer, a Democrat from Los Angeles.
     Jones-Sawyer pushed for the state auditor’s review of the court administrative agency, an audit that was fought by its lobbying arm. He has been outspoken in criticizing the court bureaucracy’s spending in the face of mass layoffs at trial courts up and down the state.
     In response to last week’s vote, his spokesman said it was too early to comment.
     One of the many faults in the court agency’s financial stewardship, said the auditor’s report, was that the powerful administrative office kept the committees and council in the dark, comments that were echoed by the few judges who voted against the latest tech project.
     “It is unclear how the financial advisory committee can ensure accountability of the AOC when it does not exist independently of the AOC, it does not review the AOC’s expenditures, and the AOC can override the financial advisory committee’s recommendations,” said auditor Howle.
     “For example, the rules of court require the financial advisory committee to make recommendations to the Judicial Council regarding the AOC’s budget concepts. We reviewed the documentation the AOC submitted to the financial advisory committee and the Judicial Council, and we found there was not always sufficient detail to justify the budget concept.”
     Judge Kim Garlin Dunning of Orange County was the second committee member who voted against the request, and her comments reflected those of the auditor.
     “I’m not sure that there is enough in this for a business case to be developed,” she said during the meeting. “We’re asking for a lot of money here. What is the business case to have the Judicial Council in charge of doing these data exchanges when we don’t even know how many systems we’re going to have. Maybe this is something where courts should be working together, not the Judicial Council.”
     With the end of the statewide CCMS project, most courts have been moving to private companies to handle their case management software, and those software systems could already include a means of connecting to other state agencies — the same functionality that that $5.6 million tech request is supposed to achieve.

‘Have You Asked the Courts’
     Mark Dusman who directs the staff’s IT division told the committee that when budget changes are proposed to the governor’s Department of Finance, they usually contain a very preliminary business case, with details to be added later.
     “To the issue of it being a Judicial Council project, I quibble with that in that while the council staff agency will be supporting the project moving forward it doesn’t mean it won’t occur without the courts’ participation,” he said.
     Judge Flurer shot back, “My concern is you’re asking us to approve these amounts and some of these things have already been accomplished by the courts. I’d hate for every court that has already done it to have to be useless at this point because you’ve redefined it in a different way.”
     She added, “I’d like to know who has these already in place. Orange County and Los Angeles has exchanges that provides some of this information. My concern is we’re going to duplicate efforts.”
     Referring to the statewide CCMS project, Dusman answered, “Only two or three courts have actually moved to a new case management system since the demise of the statewide system. All courts will eventually go to a modern case management system, and all of them will be looking to replace their data exchanges.”
     Flurer pursued, “Have you asked the courts if they want the Judicial Council to accomplish this?”
     “Timing-wise, they have not,” Dusman replied.
     Other judges on the committee said they supported the proposal because it was simply a request for funds that may very well be rejected by either the governor’s Department of Finance or the Legislature.
     “What we’re being asked to do is recommend in support the Department of Finance letter,” said O’Leary. “If we’re funded, we’re not the last stop on this train. We’re not making technology decisions right now. We’re not making the final decision here.”
     In the end, the committee voted 11-2 to approve the funding request.
     Before casting her vote, Judge Joyce Hinrichs of Humboldt County said, “In how the money will be spent there are multiple committees that are specialized in this that will be better able to direct staff about what needs to happen. We may not even get the money in the first place.”
     

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