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How Does County Government Work?

How Does County Government Work?
What's the role of county government? And why do supervisors reside on the board for so long? We'll look at San Diego's County Board of Supervisors as part of our Envision series "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.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): Two San Diego County Supervisors are up for election on next week's primary ballot and, as we mentioned, there’s also a question about whether to impose term limits on the board. But selecting a candidate or a position on an issue is pretty difficult if you're not quite sure what the board of supervisors is to begin with. Who is your elected supervisor? Where does the board get its budget? What kind of agencies does it control? And how do decisions made by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors affect your life? KPBS-TV will be broadcasting an Envision San Diego special tonight called “Who’s Supervising San Diego?” The producer and host of that program is with us this morning, KPBS reporter Joanne Faryon. Good morning, Joanne.

JOANNE FARYON (KPBS Reporter/Envision Producer): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: And I’d also like to welcome Glen Sparrow. He’s professor emeritus in the School of Public Affairs at San Diego State University. Good morning, Glen.

GLEN SPARROW (Professor Emeritus, School of Public Affairs, San Diego State University): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And we invite our listeners to join the conversation. How familiar are you with the San Diego County Board of Supervisors? Do you think they’re doing a good job? Give us a call with your questions and your comments. The number is 1-888-895-5727. Joanne, the pivotal question here is why did you decide to do a special series on San Diego County government?

FARYON: Well, for a few reasons. I believe we went in with the assumption that the public doesn’t really understand this layer of government, and we’re partially responsible for that, the media. I don’t believe that they sort of receive the same kind or same level of scrutiny that perhaps our city government or our state government does. Also, when we looked at voting records for the past couple of elections, we saw that one out of four, one out of three, eligible voters actually vote for their local supervisor and because we’ve got two supervisors up for reelection, we thought it was a good time to say, okay, this is what the county board of supervisors actually does, that we wanted to introduce people to who these supervisors were, and then going into the election they have a little bit more information to make an informed choice.

CAVANAUGH: And I think you’re right, Joanne, I think we have at least a nodding idea of what city government does and state government does but when it comes to county government, I think we have to sit back and scratch our heads for a minute. What is the mandate of county government? What is the board supposed to do?

FARYON: Well, they control a $5 billion budget and about 80% of that budget is really tied up in federal and state mandates. In other words, there are things that the county government has to do, that the state says you must do. About 20% of their budget, or $1 billion, the county board actually has control over and most of that money comes from your local property taxes, and they can establish their priorities. I know we interviewed Glen for our show and we – and he was able to tell us about the history, sort of how county government, it came to be that they ended up being the administrators of these social programs. And then in the sixties it was health, wasn’t it, Glen?

SPARROW: The boards of supervisors, especially in the western United States, at the start of the welfare state, New Deal, took on the role of providing health and welfare services, what we used to call Welfare, social services, that were basically mandated by the national government and through the national government through the state government, and so counties in California and the western United States moved away from what had been their traditional role. They were kind of rurally based, took care of the sheriff, took care of farm-to-market roads, that sort of thing. And suddenly found themselves taking on these large urban-type services, and their role changed over the years rather substantially.

CAVANAUGH: So they took this additional role on so they sort of have dual obligations now.

SPARROW: They didn’t really take it on, it was imposed on them.


SPARROW: The national government and then the state government imposed these, through mandates, that what these social services would become the function of county governments. And they became kind of administrative arms of the national and the state government. They’re the ones who manage the programs, who administer the programs. Most of the money and most of the rules come from outside, from the national government, from the state government, and so the county becomes that of administrator of these programs.

CAVANAUGH: I see. On tonight’s program “Who’s Supervising San Diego?” we’re going to meet each of these supervisors. I know this is radio so we can’t see them but, Joanne, could you tell us a little bit about each of the supervisors?

FARYON: Sure. We were lucky enough that we actually were able to interview all five of them. We got to sit down and spend some time with them. You’ll meet Dianne Jacob, and she is the supervisor for District 2. She’s a former teacher. District 2, you get a lot of east county, more sort of rural area. I should say as well that each supervisor represents roughly 600,000 people. We have about 3 million people in the county so it gets divided – the districts are divided up so that they represent an equal number of people. You’ll meet Ron Roberts. He’s one of the supervisors up for reelection. He represents District 4. He’s a former architect. District 4 is basically downtown San Diego, a big chunk of the sort of inner part of the city. Pam Slater-Price, she’s also a former teacher, former mayor of Encinitas. She represents District 3, so it’s sort of some westerly edges of the City of San Diego, Del Mar, Solana Beach, Rancho Penasquitos, that area. You’ll meet Bill Horn, also up for reelection. He is a rancher. He’s got a couple of very large, I believe, it’s citrus groves and avocado groves. He also owns a number of apartment buildings. He represents District 5, and that is – it’s not – he doesn’t actually represent the City of Escondido anymore, it’s sort of surrounding areas, also Rancho Santa Fe. And then finally Greg Cox, who is also a former teacher and former mayor of Chula Vista, and he’s got that southern part of the county, also southern tip of the City of San Diego, Chula Vista, National City, that area.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Joanne Faryon. She’s the reporter and host of the program Envision San Diego: “Who’s Supervising San Diego?” that airs tonight on KPBS-TV. And also Glen Sparrow is here. He’s professor emeritus in the School of Public Affairs at San Diego State University. We are talking about the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, inviting you to join the conversation, asking you if you think they’re doing a good job or how familiar you are with the person who represents you on the board of supervisors. You can give us a call, 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Joanne, each of the members has been nice enough to be on this program, each of the members of the board of supervisors. But you make the point on the show that there is a certain similarity between these five people…


CAVANAUGH: …among these five people.

FARYON: And I did find it kind of surprising because I confess, I didn’t know a lot about the board as well. First of all, they’re all between 60 and 70 years old. I found that a little bit surprising. I actually thought they were younger. They’re all San Diego State grads. They’re all Republican, although these are nonpartisan positions, but they are all affiliated with the Republican party. They’re all white. They also share a lot of similar – their approach to government is similar. Their priorities, we asked them all what their number one priority is in terms of their responsibility and they all told us it was public safety. So it was interesting to sort of speak with all of them and hear some of these similar stories. They gave us similar anecdotes. Three teachers, which was kind of unusual as well.

CAVANAUGH: And, Glen, what’s the – what does it matter if the members of the board of supervisors are all similar in background, similar in outlook?

SPARROW: That certainly is a debatable question. Some would say that you should have differing groups represented, for instance, economic groups or racial, ethnic groups, that sort of thing in order to have a better distribution of political power. But, again, that’s an arguable issue that people will take different positions on.

CAVANAUGH: Right. It certainly might make it easier for them to work together, let’s say.

SPARROW: Certainly. One of the things – Joanne didn’t mention it but one of the things that strikes me about this group, and I think it’s because they’ve been together for so long, they learned to get along with each other very well early on. Previous boards of supervisors have fought each other and there’ve been real knock down, drag out fights on the board. And we see it also in city councils and that sort of thing. But this group decided or learned or are of the same nature, they’re very convivial. They get along, at least on the surface. They don’t fight in public, they seem to be walking in lockstep together and agree with each other on most of the issues that come up. Occasionally, issues will come up, land use planning, all these can, you know, blow them apart but, overall, they seem to be very cohesive in their thoughts and in their actions.

CAVANAUGH: But just to follow up on that, Glen, is that kind of demographic that Joanne told us about, all SDSU grads, Republican, white conservative, how does it reflect the county in terms of demographics?

SPARROW: It doesn’t. It doesn’t. The county, first of all, is moving towards a Democratic majority. It also has a large number of ethnic minorities. In fact, it is a non-majority county. That is, there is no ethnic or racial majority in this county any longer. So they really don’t represent the people, the voters out there. Whether that makes a difference as to whether they can govern or not is a completely different question, of course.

CAVANAUGH: And I know, Joanne, you talked to San Diego City Councilman Todd Gloria about the makeup of the board of supervisors. Why did you choose him?

FARYON: Well, and I just want to follow up with…


FARYON: …what Glen was saying in terms of the demographic because we did look at that in tonight’s show, and I think it’s just under 50% of residents in San Diego County are white, 30% Hispanic, and I believe it’s one-tenth Island Pacific and one-twentieth African-American. So, as Glen said, no – and an all sort of all white, all Republican government doesn’t necessarily represent the demographic. We spoke with Councilmember Todd Gloria and the reason we spoke with him, he worked for state government, he worked for the county government as well, and now he’s an elected member – he’s a city council member for the City of San Diego. And he kind of highlighted sort of the fact that all of these supervisors have sort of a sameness about them and I brought some tape with me and I think when Councilmember Gloria points out the diversity on the city council, that’s when you see really this great contrast.

TODD GLORIA (Councilman, City of San Diego): Well, I think that when people look at the current composition of the board of supervisors, they are surprised at the very homogenous nature of the board where you have all Republicans, all San Diego State grads, and all Caucasian. And then you look, perhaps, at the San Diego City Council where we’re far more diverse. You know, we have three women, three people of color, two gay men, six Democrats, two Republicans, and it’s more heterogeneous and I think, therefore, creates for a more healthy dialogue in terms of points of view, perspectives, life experiences, that are all brought to the table when decisions are being made.

CAVANAUGH: And that was San Diego City Councilman Todd Gloria. We are taking your calls about the board of supervisors, the San Diego board of supervisors. 1-888-895-5727 is the number. Let’s take a call now from Daniel, calling from Clairemont. Good morning, Daniel, and welcome to These Days.

DANIEL (Caller, Clairemont): Hello. Well, I’m white, I’m male, and I’m registered Republican and I have a little problem with this – with the board. It doesn’t seem to represent the county, you know, and I don’t have anything against any of these people personally, I just don’t think that it represents the, you know, the public, the county public.

CAVANAUGH: Daniel, how much do you know about the board of supervisors? Is this something that is, you know, forefront in your mind about what county government does? Or did you really have to try to find out?

DANIEL: Well, because I’m a highly political person and I ran for city council I do, yes, I do know a lot about them. But I’ve learned a little bit more personally about them and about their own business dealings and things like that recently through some of the local newspapers. I think the CityBeat had something about that or the Reader did. But, you know, other than that, like I said, personally I don’t have a problem with them and I’ve known of them because I’m a politico but the situation is, is that a lot of people don’t know of them and they’re not representative of the total population of the County of San Diego, you know, across the board. And that’s very concerning to me.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Daniel, for the call very much. Joanne, I know that in your special, you have a lot of vox populi. You went out on the street and you asked people what they knew about the board of supervisors. What kind of responses did you get?

FARYON: Well, for the most part, people didn’t know what a supervisor was. They didn’t know who their supervisor was. They didn’t know what they did. And we got a lot of name guessing. People could name city council members but they couldn’t name board members, although I do have to say when we went to Rancho Santa Fe—Bill Horn represents Rancho Santa Fe—we had a couple of people who knew Bill Horn, and he has a couple of election signs up in that community that they sighted as well. Yeah, so there wasn’t really a lot of knowledge in terms of this layer of government. And, really, I think there’s this sense that maybe they don’t impact your daily life but, in fact, they do. Although there’s 80% of their budget is really tied up in these state and federal mandates, how they execute those mandates really is policy. This board has a policy manual and I spent some time reading it and in every area they set out policy. For example, public housing, their policy’s very strict. If you are using any kind of illegal drug, you can’t live in public housing. And, legally, that – the law, the federal law says, yes, you can do that. Now whether or not a local county chooses to actually pursue that is up to the county. I actually spoke with the federal government. Okay, what can counties do? Counties have this regulation on the books, they can use it or they don’t necessarily have to. This board also has policy when it comes to illegal immigration. They don’t have any power when it comes to illegal immigration but they have a policy that says we want a Constitutional amendment, we would support one that says if babies who are born in this country but their parents are illegal, they shouldn’t be American citizens. So while they may not be able to make up all the rules in terms of 80% of that budget, how they execute programs – For example, they’ve been criticized for not really doing their job necessarily when it comes to public assistance. Food stamps is sort of the thing we hear about a lot lately. We have the worst record in terms of food stamp participation. So what could this board do or what doesn’t it do to increase participation? When we looked at the billion dollars, the part of the budget that the county board of supervisors actually has control over, what we saw is 54% of that budget is spent on public safety. That’s the sheriff’s department, the DA’s office and probation services. 7% and, in fact, just under 7% going into the next fiscal year will be spent on health and human services. If you look at LA County in terms of their spending and the portion of their budget they have control over, well, they spend 30% of their budget on health and public assistance. So they do have an impact in terms of the programs and the services that citizens in this county receive.

CAVANAUGH: My guests are KPBS reporter Joanne Faryon and Professor Emeritus in the School of Public Affairs at San Diego State University, Glen Sparrow. We’re talking about “Who’s Supervising San Diego?” that’s the name of an Envision San Diego TV special tonight, and it asks the question about how familiar are you with the San Diego County Board of Supervisors? Our number, if you’d like to join our conversation, is 1-888-895-5727. Let me say that again, 1-888-895-5727. Frank is on the line with us from El Cajon. Good morning, Frank. Welcome to These Days.

FRANK (Caller, El Cajon): I – Just an observation and a question. The current board of supervisors has an ideological narrative that seems to compel them to make life miserable for the homeless. We’re the lowest participating county in general relief and also in food stamps. Can we expect more of the same in the future?

CAVANAUGH: Okay, thank you for that, Frank. And I suppose that’s really a question we can’t really answer. But, Glen, Joanne just gave us some comparisons county by county about how much money that they – that different boards allocate for health and human services. How does San Diego stack up?

SPARROW: I have to go along with Joanne’s figures. I haven’t looked at it. But I think that we certainly, San Diego County, that the board of supervisors reflects a political culture in this county and that is one that is fiscally conservative and doesn’t like a strong presence of government in its public policy. And I think the board of supervisors tends to reflect that. That’s not to say that that culture isn’t changing. I believe it’s changing and I, in my view, I think the board of supervisors is behind the curve on this but elections oft times have to reflect changes and so forth and this board of supervisors I don’t think is going to have a significant change in the near future. As a matter of fact, next year they’re going to be drawing new district lines and I would posit that one of the reasons that we have this type of board of supervisors that Joanne laid out for us earlier is because they draw the lines, the boundaries, of their districts, and they’re going to break up those organizations, economic or racial or ethnic or Democratic in this large-D, Democratic Party type so that they get districts that reflect their views and give them majorities.

CAVANAUGH: Now I know as part of your research on this, Joanne, you also have a posting online, about basically contrasting San Diego County Board of Supervisors with other county board of supervisors across California. And it’s very interesting in terms of salary and makeup and so forth. Now one of the things that our board gets criticized about a lot is their community grant program, also known as the discretionary fund. How much do they receive to spend at their discretion and also how does that stack up with other counties?

FARYON: Currently, each supervisor can spend $2 million so for a total of $10 million. They did change that, the board did change that so going into next fiscal year it’s going to be reduced to $1 million per supervisor, although the budget documents also say that following next year, it goes back to $2 million per supervisor, back to $10 million. So we surveyed – we did survey all 58 counties in the state of California. We ended up getting enough data back that we could compare that discretionary fund with the 10 largest counties by population. San Diego County does have the largest discretionary fund. I know LA County – our supervisors like to point to LA County because on the surface it appears that their discretionary fund is larger. Each supervisor in LA County gets $3.4 million. However, those supervisors must also pay for office expenses including salaries and staff out of that fund. So we did get the data last fiscal year from LA County. Out of that total $3.4 million times five supervisors, that’s $17 million, $3.8 million was spent on these discretionary grants, so far less than San Diego. And we have all of that data on our website, I think that LA was second. We had one other county where supervisors, I believe, were able to spend $600,000 each. Many counties, the supervisors actually don’t have discretionary funds at all.

CAVANAUGH: And, Glen, I’m wondering, are – do the critics have a point? Is there a problem with this $2 million discretionary fund?

SPARROW: Maureen, there are three reasons in my view that this board of supervisors has stayed as long as they have without being broken up, without losing elections and so forth. One is incumbency, which is always good to have when you’re running for reelection. Secondly is the ability to draw their own boundaries and carve out their own districts of like-minded people. And thirdly is this $2 million a year slush fund. If you have that kind of money to pass out to people in your district, you’re certainly going to make friends out there. And those friends are going to come back to assist you when it comes time for an election. There’s no question in my mind that that is one of the most substantial reasons for their longevity that there is.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take a couple of calls back to back, if we can. Ross is calling us from University Heights. Good morning, Ross, and welcome to These Days.

ROSS (Caller, University Heights): Good morning. I’m a registered Democrat and I have – I rarely ever vote for a Republican but I have voted for the supervisors because they have managed to balance their budget, they have managed to have money, whereas the city is broke, Los Angeles is broke, San Francisco’s broke. But these five people have managed to balance and keep money so that they’re not on the verge of bankruptcy. And I think that that’s one of the things that everybody should keep in mind. We have a city that’s broke, we have a pension plan that’s broke, but somehow the pension plan for the county and the budget for the county seems to be doing fine so…

CAVANAUGH: Ross, thank you so much. I want to take another phone call and then we’ll get a reaction. Jeff is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Jeff. Welcome to These Days.

JESS (Caller, San Diego): It’s Jess. Good morning.


JESS: Well, I wanted to talk about the gerrymandering that goes on in the county. You have to put this in context. The reason why you have five Republicans and five Anglos is the fact that when attempts have been made to redistrict the county, it’s been unsuccessful. And I think if you go to the recent past, first of all, about 15 years ago Mike Aguirre led a lawsuit against the county to redistrict, which was unsuccessful. A few years ago Mr. Horn wanted Escondido out of his district so what they’ve done – what they’ve done is they’ve gerrymandered this thing and I think the most egregious district is where you have San Ysidro in the same district with Point Loma.

CAVANAUGH: Jeff, got your point. Thank you so much. Jess, I’m sorry. Jess, thank you for calling. Let me take on those two points and we had Ross talking about the fact that this is actually, on the whole, a very well run county.

FARYON: Ross is right. Actually, the County of San Diego, this board is recognized across the country as being one of the best managed counties. They’re not broke. They have more than a billion dollars in reserves. They’re able to build new county buildings and pay cash for many of them, so absolutely, this county, at a time when other local governments are on the verge of bankruptcy, this county is very fiscally healthy.

CAVANAUGH: But, Glen, there is that problem with the pension, the county pension, that we don’t hear that much about.

SPARROW: Right. There are two points as to their fiscal situation. One is that they have an excellent county administrative officer who manages this county extremely well and, fortunately, the supervisors don’t get into the management. And when you’re spending 80% of your money on administrative services, on services and so forth, then management becomes a critical issue, not public policy but management. Now, the pension issue. As the caller stated, the City of San Diego has serious pension problems. The county has avoided those pension problems by borrowing money with pension bonds to be able to offset their cost. If the City of San Diego had gone out and borrowed money, the City of San Diego would have the same rosy, from the outside, look pension situation that the county does. But, remember, the county is making its pension system work on borrowed money. The City of San Diego is trying to make its pension system work on real money that comes out of the yearly budget. So it’s two different approaches to a pension problem.

CAVANAUGH: And Jess made the point about gerrymandering. I’d like you to address that, Joanne.

FARYON: Well, actually he was referring to the lawsuit. I think it was 2002, so every 10 years after the Census, and we’re going through the Census right now, the board must, by law, actually draw the lines again for their districts. They have to. And it is up to the supervisors although there are public hearings. Again, a lot of this comes down to, you know, is the public actively engaged at – in this level of government and are they speaking up? There are public hearings where the public can say – speak up and say no, you know, I don’t think this is the right way to do things. But this process is going to happen again next spring. Once the Census data is in, these supervisors are going to get to redraw the lines again, and the public has an opportunity to speak up. As well as the budget, what was sort of surprising, I went to a board meeting a couple of weeks ago where this proposed budget for next fiscal year was presented. A few people spoke up. But they don’t have a lot of public participation when it comes to how this county is going to spend your money. So it’s somewhat surprising really.

CAVANAUGH: In the TV special tonight, Joanne, you have a vignette about a similar answer given by a number of different supervisors to a question that you posed and how that sort of reflects the point on the – how similar these board members are and what that may mean to how they work together and the kind of policies they follow. Tell us that story, if you would.

FARYON: Well, it’s interesting because I didn’t actually clue in at the time of the interviews because our interviews were spaced out over a period of about 8 or 9 days with five of the supervisors. And one of the questions I had asked after looking at the budget and how supervisors allocate the money is, given that such a large percentage of the budget goes to public safety, such a small percent in terms of their discretionary budget goes to health and human services, how would they categorize health and human services as a priority? And I had three supervisors give me the same anecdote about nurses, about public health nurses and how a couple years ago public health nurses were given laptops and it made them much more efficient. The point being, that you don’t have to spend more money necessarily to get better service or to get more service. But for three of them to tell me that – this exact same story, this one example, I found it interesting. And you see that in tonight’s documentary. As well, all five of them gave me the exact same answer when asked what is your priority, although I think Glen will point out that public safety, that’s probably an answer that a lot of local governments would give. It’s probably what – maybe the priority of a lot of citizens as well. I did want to make the point, and we didn’t go into a lot of detail in the show. I mean, when we talk about public safety, it is the DA’s office, so they prosecute criminals, it is the sheriff’s department. The county is responsible for I think it’s about 600,000 people in terms of the sheriff’s office, the unincorporated area. They do contract out to 9 other cities in the county, although that’s revenue neutral. In other words, doesn’t cost the county money, the county doesn’t make money. So I, you know, just want to make that point, too. In terms of public safety and who the sheriff’s office is serving in that regard, it is your – if you live in the City of San Diego your police force is the San Diego Police force.

SPARROW: Except courts, district attorney prosecutorial functions and jails are provided for all cities…

FARYON: That’s right, countywide.

SPARROW: …by the county.

FARYON: Right.

CAVANAUGH: We’re going to have to leave it there. There’s a lot for us to learn and I think you’ve given us a really good preview about your special tonight. I’m been speaking with KPBS reporter Joanne Faryon and Glen Sparrow. He’s professor emeritus in the School of Public Affairs at San Diego State University. This Envision San Diego special, "Who's Supervising San Diego," airs tonight at 8:00 on KPBS-TV.

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