Ghosts of Technology and Staff|Haunt Courts’ Executive Meeting

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – In the wake of scolding from the state auditor, the California Judicial Council’s top committee on Friday tried to put its hands around a pair of ghosts that still haunt the judiciary, technology fiascos and staff excess.
     The Friday meeting of the council’s executive committee followed a legislative hearing two days earlier where State Auditor Elaine Howle presented an audit documenting the judicial bureaucracy’s waste of hundreds of millions of dollars that should have gone to the trial courts during the state’s long-running budget crisis.
     Howle noted that a 2012 internal report by the judiciary’s Strategic Evaluation Committee had come to similar and sometimes more strongly worded conclusions. But she said little had changed as a result of the SEC’s lengthy chronicle of waste and mismanagement.
     Friday, when the executive committee approached the old issue of ruinous technology projects, tensions rose quickly over a claim that Los Angeles Superior Court still owes $2.4 million for financial software imposed on the trial courts.
     The administrative office mandated use of the Phoenix Financial software as an outgrowth of 1997 legislation transferring trial court funding from counties to the state. But L.A. Superior Court refused to pay for software it had not asked for and did not want.
     Among its many suggestions for reform, the 2012 SEC report had called for making the software optional. The obligation to pay for the software was then transferred to the so-called Improvement and Modernization Fund, one of several pots of money within the bureaucratic structure.
     In the last fiscal year, that fund paid $11 million for the software. A fact sheet from the Administrative Office of the Courts say the software is run by SAP. That company is connected to Deloitte Consulting, which says on its website that “Deloitte and SAP have worked together for more than a decade.”
     Deloitte in turn developed the Court Case Management Software under the supervision of the court administrative office, at a cost of a half-billion dollars to California. That software project was then abandoned in 2012.
     The Improvement and Modernization Fund, which continues to pay for the Phoenix software from SAP, is now on the brink of insolvency.
     When the old $2.4 million debt from Los Angeles come up at Friday’s meeting, Judge James Brandlin from Los Angeles said in stern tones, “We have some concerns about whether this is truly optional and whether we want to be part of that. As long as it’s optional that’s one issue. But if it’s being forced on a particular court and the court doesn’t want it, then the court’s response is ‘why should I pay for something I don’t want?'”
     He added that he didn’t think the underlying issue of forcing courts to use certain services had been resolved.
     “There are some services many courts use and some courts don’t use at all that are still being charged to many of the courts. I think this is a delicate issue and I don’t recommend further discussion today in this forum.”
     Judge Charles Wachob, who chaired the 2012 Strategic Evaluation Committee, is a nonvoting member of the executive committee. On Friday, he told the executive committee that his group still considers the matter unsettled.
     “The SEC saw this as an issue and the recommendation concluded that to come to a head on this issue that the Judicial Council make a determination about whether or not it would be appropriate to ask for reimbursement for L.A.,” said Wachob. “But to my knowledge that precise issue has not been determined by the Judicial Council. It’s been put by the wayside.”
     The SEC vice chair, Judge Brian McCabe, said, “The latter issue still needs to be dealt with. It was mandated on them and they were required to go on it and had to pay for it, but then later there was a decision by the council that well, if it’s mandated, we’re not going to require anybody to pay for it. There was an equitable argument that well maybe there should be a forgiveness of that original first two or three years of debt and that hasn’t been dealt with.”
     The executive committee then moved to another old issue, the burgeoning of the administrative bureaucracy in the years since the 1997 legislation and the modest efforts in recent years to trim that staff.
     Chief of Staff Jody Patel told the executive committee that the bureaucracy now consists of 780 employees, but there are 57 authorized positions that remain unfilled.
     “Is there any efforts being taken to reduce the number of vacancy positions?” Justice Jim Humes asked Patel. “Across state government I’ve seen agencies frequently hoard positions even though they didn’t have the money to fill them, and it can come off to the public as looking like ‘What are you doing?’ “
     “If there’s any way to reduce the number of positions authorized, that might be a good thing for the branch to do,” Humes suggested.
     “We can report back to you once we do a review of what positions we can eliminate,” Patel replied.
     Wachob noted that his SEC report had recommended sharp reductions in staff size. The lack of progress in implementing that recommendation is reflected by the failure to eliminate positions.
     “There’s a big difference between reporting on unauthorized vacant position and eliminating them,” said Wachob. “If you keep holding unauthorized positions, there’s a possibility for a sort of creep in the number of employees. And one of the things the SEC was intent on doing was bringing constant attention to keeping the lid on what previously had been unchecked, unplanned growth in the organization from 227 to 1,127 over a period of years.”
     “I don’t think anybody should ignore that huge difference in what was in the recommendation and what is being done,” said Wachob.
     Justice Humes, who presides over San Francisco-based Division One of the state appellate court, said the administrative bureaucracy should align its authorized position with its funding.
     “If we can only fill 750 positions we ought to be closer than we are to the number of vacancies,” he said. “I think the auditor and everyone else will be happy if we eliminate the vacant positions we have.”
     Executive committee chair Justice Douglas Miller closed the meeting with high praise for Wachob and McCabe, who, along with ten other judges, worked for a year on the 2012 SEC Report.
     “Over these two or three years you really have reshaped the branch, reshaped the Judicial Council and their staff. There’s been real change, significant change. It’s ongoing, there’s a lot of work to do. It’s a process that you started and will continue.”
     McCabe reflected on the committee’s work as isolating, but rewarding.
     “The two of us felt, in the beginning, like lepers that had been put back in the general population,” said McCabe. “Now the beauty of this tough love baby is being appreciated or accepted.”
     “This was not something done by Judge Wachob and myself. Without those others, this would not have been possible. We were a cohesive group. We have bonded with those folks. It was a band of brothers experience,” he continued. “It was extraordinarily isolating to have aspersions cast on us during the entire process. We were considered hatchet people as we walked in buildings. It’s a surreal experience, one I’ll never forget.”
     Wachob credited Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye in his comments to the committee. “The tip of that hat goes to the chief. She’s the one who recognized there was some need for transformation. The only challenge for us is not the hard work but to be patient, because transformation is a process not an event. And it takes time.”
     

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