SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The finance director for California’s court bureaucracy is moving, after a series of attacks on the bureaucracy from the Legislature and trial court judges angry over financial matters. Departing finance director Stephen Nash is taking a new job as head clerk in San Bernardino’s trial courts.
Nash will fill a job that recently opened up due to the retirement of the longtime chief clerk for San Bernardino, and he will join two other insiders from the Administrative Office of the Courts in taking jobs running big Southern California trial courts in San Diego and Orange County.
Nash declined to answer questions about the reason for his departure from the highest echelon of the courts’ statewide bureaucracy, but his exit follows shortly after a wave of retirements within the agency under fire for financial decisions that took money from trial courts during a time of dire need in order to to fund projects favored by the administrative office.
Shortly after two legislators called for the removal of AOC director William Vickrey over allegations of the agency’s mishandling of a massive $1.9 billion court IT project, the embattled administrator announced his retirement effective in August. Vickrey said he had been intending to retire for over a year.
The retirement announcement of Ken Kann, AOC information gatekeeper, followed two days later, on March 24. Kann was embroiled in a 2010 lawsuit that alleged he had pushed a lower-level staffer out the door after the employee complained of the bureaucracy’s lavish spending on receptions, meetings in hotels, wine tastings and other annual events.
On March 30, Sheila Calabro, director of the AOC’s Southern Regional office, announced her departure for June. Last November, Calabro was removed from her position as overseer of the IT project called the Court Case Management System. Before her replacement, Calabro had been in charge of the day-to-day management of the project, but the AOC shifted her to co-chair of a new supervisory committee.
As finance director, Nash was often seen at meetings of the Judicial Council, a body of judges responsible for making decisions that affect the state’s 58 trial courts, giving presentations on behalf of the AOC, the staff agency intended to work directly under the council in carrying out policy. Along with Graeme Finley of accounting firm Grant Thornton, Nash presented a highly positive cost-benefit analysis of CCMS, a report that the state auditor said the agency should have conducted almost a decade ago before it launched the project.
Last December, Nash asked the council for $87 million from a disputed court trust fund for technology projects including CCMS. Judges vehemently protested, saying the fund was meant for keeping courts open, not funding IT projects, and that the council had no authority to draw from the fund.
In April 2010, when the council voted to reject a plea from Los Angeles Superior Court for $47 million in emergency funds to keep its doors open, Nash said the court had “overestimated” the amount of employees it would have to lay off in October 2010, as well as the amount needed to avoid such staff cuts.
Nash will be replacing the outgoing Court Executive Officer Tressa Kentner, who retires next month.
In an interview, Kentner, who has put in 16 years at the San Bernardino Court, said Nash will bring the “expertise in budgets” that he gleaned from his time with the AOC, one of the qualities the court had been seeking in her successor.
Kentner also said the court had been looking for “someone who has understanding of the way the courts function in California, the fact that we’re a unified courts system.”
Kentner said she was referring to changes in the judicial branch that occurred under former California Chief Justice Ronald George who retired last year. Unification involved the merging of the state superior courts with city municipal courts.
But it also signaled the rise of the Court Case Management System, a project meant to connect state courts with one another through a single unified computer system controlled by the central bureaucracy.
As the head clerk, Nash will be starting out with an annual salary of $204,755 three dollars more than Kentner earned in 2009. He could also potentially enjoy a perk exclusive to the San Bernardino court, wherein the CEO is not required to contribute anything to retirement. Kentner said the perk was implemented because of her 30 years working in the courts.
According to the AOC’s own figures, instead of contributing to retirement, the court’s CEO receives a cash payment of $28,729 at retirement, “which reflects both the employee’s and the employer’s share” of the contribution. Kentner said Nash will not receive the perk unless he puts in at least 30 years in the state court system.
Nash has also been part of an elite group at the top of the Administrative Office of the Courts that enjoys the special benefit of having their entire pension contribution paid by the public on top of the salaries, unlike the rank and file among the court’s workers. The amounts paid into that pension found will in essence be traded into a different fund for trial court civil servants.
San Bernardino Court Presiding Judge Douglas Elwell said the bench had voted Nash into his new job on May 25th, after an “executive search” the involved interviews and presentations before the bench. Elwell said the court’s judges were given five to six days to “think about it and talk to each other and do some politicking” before Nash was elected on the first round of voting.
In an interview, Elwell quoted new rules proposed by the AOC concerning the duties of the executive officer.
“Under the general rules and procedures the CEO is responsible for administrative matters subject to the general oversight of the presiding judge,” Elwell said. The old rules stipulated that CEOs act under “the direction” of the presiding judge, a change that Kentner said she worked on as a member of the committee that proposed changes to the California rules of court this February.
A number of trial court judges have criticized the rule change as the “nose of the camel under the tent,” arguing that it is part of a larger campaign by the central bureaucracy in San Francisco to take operational control of the trial courts in California’s 58 counties, by pushing those loyal to the central agency into head clerk jobs while undercutting the power of the presiding judge.
Along with Nash, bureaucrats with extensive experience at the Administrative Office of the Courts have taken positions as head clerks in San Diego and Orange County. In addition, that central agency now controls the trial court buildings themselves and the new court rules specify that the head clerk, or CEO, shall have control over the computer system.
“I know there’s been a lot of discussion on that language change but I don’t think that’s going to change what the CEO does,” Kentner said. “The job is going to be pretty much the same.”
“Mr. Nash is an experienced person with respect to the operation of the third branch of government the judicial system,” Judge Elwell noted. “He is highly respected and highly liked throughout the state. He interviewed brilliantly in front of our bench and our bench is very enthusiastic about him.”
Kentner added that Nash’s AOC experience could be advantageous in his new position. “He knows a lot of people at the state level,” she said. “He has a lot of contacts and that will serve him well.”