SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) - An audit of the Administrative Office of the Courts and its boss, the Judicial Council, will go forward after a unanimous vote Wednesday by California lawmakers.
Complaints about the bureaucracy's overspending, overstaffing and mismanagement of projects, like a statewide court computer system, has kept the courts from getting sorely needed funding, Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, said.
"Last year, we pre-funded the courts over $40 million, but it was not as much as we would have wanted," he said. "One of the reasons why we did not get more was because there were many preconceived notions about the courts, the Judicial Council and the AOC, including that they are overstaffed, underperforming, mismanaging funds and overspending. I do not want anecdotes anymore. I want answers. I want those answers from an independent source. I've heard from a cacophony of voices and what we need now is an independent source of what really needs to be done. This is about getting answers, whatever they may be, good or bad."
Jones-Sawyer cited criticism on spending and staff numbers in explaining why he requested the audit.
"Obviously I'm humbled that it was a unanimous vote by both Republicans and Democrats, on the Senate and the Assembly side," he said in an interview after the vote. "I think both sides really know it's needed."
The proposed audit specifically covers whether the council and its 800-member staff agency are complying with reforms laid out in SB 1021, legislation from 2012 that prohibits the redirection of money from the Trial Court Trust Fund to anything other than funding the trial courts.
State Auditor Elaine Howle told the Legislature's joint audit committee that the size and composition of the AOC also faces review.
The audit will "analyze that staff to determine whether or not it's well-structured to allow the AOC to accomplish its mission," Howle said. "There have been reductions in trial court funding over the last three years. Has the AOC's functions been modified as a result of that? Are there AOC functions that are no longer necessary or overstaffed?"
Howle said the audit should take six to seven months for her agency to complete.
AOC Director Steven Jahr said the bureaucracy already audits itself, and has recently been directed by the Legislature to produce two yearly fiscal reports. It also hired consulting firm Fox Lawson and Associates to conduct a $788,000 study on worker compensation and classification, scheduled for completion at the end of the year.
The AOC brought in the outside consultants at the recommendation of the Strategic Evaluation Committee, a group of judges directed by California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, after she was sworn into office in 2011.
In a voluminous report with 150 recommendations for reform, the committee found rampant mismanagement and waste within the California bureaucracy that serves the courts. Judges across the state that long voiced such criticism heralded the report.
Jahr said the AOC has already adopted reforms in light of the committee report, but added that process is long and expensive. While he said the chief justice and the Judicial Council support aspects of the audit, they had asked that it be "narrowed," meaning that the staff analysis be eliminated.
The somewhat resigned Jahr added: "Mr. Jones-Sawyer has provided me with some wise advice. He has observed in his career and in his experience that an audit can clear someone's good name. And I agree with him. There are criticisms that continue to surface relative to an agency which has been considerably reformed and downsized."
Sharis Peters with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees hugged Jones-Sawyer after the hearing.
"If this audit can help to find even a few more dollars that can be directed toward court services, it will be much appreciated," Peters said.
She was one of 15 audit supporters, nearly all trial judges and union representatives, who lined up during the hearing's public comment period to speak on behalf of court workers.
Of all the requests heard by the committee Wednesday, the proposed audit of the Judicial Council and AOC drew the most speakers in support.
Judge David Lampe of Kern County praised Jones-Sawyer's proposal, calling it a "very timely, insightful and, I think, narrow request.
"This audit request is not duplicative; it is complementary to other audits," Lampe said. "It's not a question of have we put the money in the right box. It's a question of what is the box for, how much money is going into it, and how big should the box be."
Michelle Castro with the Service Employees International Union called the audit "a necessary step in helping us reinstate the integrity of the judicial branch and helping us as a step toward regaining meaningful budget restoration to the trial courts."
Willie Pelote with AFSCME added that the Legislature must "stay on top of this until we get there."
"This agency needs to start functioning the way it should function for the taxpayers of California," he said.
Justice Arthur Scotland stood opposed, calling the audit premature in light of the thorough and exhaustive investigation by the Strategic Evaluation Committee.
Scotland had been Cantil-Sakauye's initial pick to chair that committee but he bowed out to represent Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Perez in a lawsuit against State Controller John Chiang.
"Given this recent, in-depth, no holds barred program assessment and audit of the AOC, I can provide a little different perspective," Scotland said. "Given the Judicial Council's embrace of the recommendations, and given there's a pending audit of the AOC, it seems to me this request is premature, makes little sense and will cost a lot of cents to conduct another, essentially redundant audit of the AOC."
He added, "I understand the intent behind this is an honorable one, but I would suggest that you consider that this will be an expenditure of a lot of money that could be better used by reinstating some of the funds that have been taken in draconian cuts to the judiciary."
But the committee seemed to disagree. All 12 members present voted for the audit.
Jones-Sawyer rejected the criticism of the audit in an interview.
"It's not broad," he said. "The state auditor looked at it, and she thinks it's narrow enough. To be honest, I wanted it broader. It was the auditor that made sure it was specific, narrow like a laser and to the point."
Howle, the auditor, is "an expert, she's professional and she's done more audits than we could ever think of," Jones-Sawyer added. "She knows exactly what to do and I have full faith in her that she'll come back with a product that even the judges will like."Follow @MariaDinzeo
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