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San Diego County Supervisors Compared: Politics, Discretionary Funds, Salaries

Special Feature Who's Supervising San Diego?

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors controls a $5 billion budget and makes decisions affecting your health and safety. They oversee services that range from prosecuting criminals to feeding the poor. Learn about your supervisor’s priorities and how the group spends your money.

— Several weeks ago, I was assigned what seemed to be a simple task – collect basic demographic information from California’s 297 county supervisors who represent the state’s 58 counties.

I was wrong about the simple part.

KPBS wanted this information to provide context to our upcoming coverage of San Diego’s Board of Supervisors. KPBS will air “Who’s Supervising San Diego” Wednesday, June 2, at 8 pm. The show will focus on San Diego’s board, which is comprised of five white Republicans who have served together for 15 years. As part of this report, we wanted to find out whether this lack of diverse political affiliation or ethnicity and length of service was typical of other county boards.

Photo caption:

Political affiliation of supervisors for the 10 largest counties in California.

For those not entirely familiar with this layer of government, counties act as agents of the state. They oversee a range of services that include prosecuting criminals and feeding the poor. In San Diego County, the Board of Supervisors controls a $5 billion budget, which is larger than the San Diego City Council budget. Each San Diego supervisor also controls a discretionary fund. This year the fund is $2 million per supervisor, but that amount will be cut in half next fiscal year.

After sending out hundreds of email questionnaires to supervisors throughout the state, making dozens of phone calls and conducting countless Google searches, this is what we learned: San Diego’s Board of Supervisors is the longest serving board of the 10 largest counties; is paid less than supervisors governing smaller counties; and has one of the largest discretionary budgets per capita of all those counties that responded. Los Angeles County Supervisors had the second largest per capita discretionary fund. LA supervisors are each allocated $3.4 million dollars, but must pay office expenses, including salaries, before spending the remainder on discretionary grants.

Photo caption:

Discretionary funds for the Board of Supervisors of the 10 largest counties in California.

And while San Diego’s supervisors may have served longer than other boards, it isn’t unusual to see supervisors serve three or four terms (one Los Angeles supervisor has been in office for 30 years). There are also three other boards of the 10 largest counties that represent only one party.

We also learned that this layer of government seemed more difficult to penetrate than city and state government. Many supervisors refused to answer our questionnaire. And those who did respond found a variety of ways to avoid actually providing real answers to questions about ethnicity or political party affiliation. Responses ranged from the ridiculous (one supervisor wrote “NASCAR” in response to the race question) to the outraged (a media person assigned to a San Diego supervisor spent several minutes on the phone blasting me for asking these questions at all).

One week after sending out the questionnaire, only 30 responses had been received. At that point, we began working the phones – calling, or trying to call, each supervisor personally to request their participation.

That’s when things got really interesting.

To be fair, some supervisors, when contacted, said they had never received the email – that it most likely got blocked by their email spam filters. But the vast majority of supervisors who did not respond provided reasons having nothing to do with spam filters. I had no idea what anger and contempt the questionnaire had generated. Supervisors and their staff lectured me about the questions being spurious, ridiculous, simplistic or non-newsworthy.

Still other supervisors wrote that their ethnicity is a personal matter - this in an age of electing a black president of the United States – when it would seem race should no longer be such a sensitive issue if we as a country are truly moving forward to embrace diversity.

One county even had their legal counsel write us to say they were not legally required to respond and that if we really wanted the information, we could submit a public records request. Again surprising considering these are elected officials controlling taxpayer dollars.

Special Feature Map: Supervisorial Districts for San Diego County

A Google map showing the regions that form the districts for the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. Click to view on Google Maps.

To date, KPBS has gathered 115 responses, representing supervisors in 45 out of California’s 58 counties.

According to Thad Kousser, political science professor at UCSD, this is not a bad response statistically.

“The raw response rate is fairly good. You did pretty well by getting a little less than half,” said Kousser. “A lot of surveys get only 20 percent.”

Kousser also suggested the lack of response from some supervisors might be attributable to the fact that they fill the job on a part-time basis, are paid very little and have no office staff to help respond to the myriad of emails received. Kousser suggested that higher paid, full-time supervisors who have administrative staff might be more likely to respond. However this is not what we found. In fact, one of the most challenging offices to deal with was that of a highly paid, full-time Los Angeles supervisor whose press representative ultimately ignored my calls.

Then there was Supervisor Shorty Crabtree, in rural Modoc County – population 9,449 – located in the northeast corner of the state along the Oregon border. I managed to catch Crabtree at home one afternoon. Crabtree said he didn’t recall receiving the email, but was more than happy to answer my questions and suggested I resend them to his email address – But refreshingly, Crabtree, who is paid approximately $20,000 a year as a supervisor, was also happy to take the time to answer my questions over the telephone. Unlike others contacted, he didn’t even flinch when asked his ethnicity or political affiliation.

Ultimately, the information we did manage to gather depicted an interesting range of county supervisors across the state.

There are supervisors in California’s more rural counties who work out of their homes, part-time or on shoe-string salaries and with budgets of as little as $17,000 a year. Some have little to no staff and work in districts that cover hundreds of miles. While at the other end of the spectrum there are supervisors who make more than $100,000 annually, have several layers of staff and generous allowances for cars, cell phones and other perks.

Photo caption:

Salaries of supervisors for the 10 largest counties in California.

Why is all of this important? County supervisors represent a largely invisible layer of government, but one that has great impact on the community in which you live. The San Diego Board of Supervisors is now deliberating over how to spend $5 billion of taxpayers’ money. They decide which programs and services to fund and which ones to cut. Find out more about the San Diego County Board of Supervisor’s priorities and how they plan to spend your money Wednesday, June 2 at 8 p.m. on KPBS Television.


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