Dr. Fred Smoller, Ph.D., is the Director of the Masters of Public Administration Program and Center at Brandman University, a division of Chapman University.
If Orange County were a city, it would be the third largest city in the nation, behind New York and Los Angeles, and ahead of Chicago. That could happen if our 34 cities and county government were consolidated.
San Francisco, Denver, Indianapolis, Louisville, Honolulu and Kansas City are among the 30 U.S. municipalities that have consolidated city-county governments. Before you dismiss the idea, consider some of the shortfalls of governmental sprawl.
Fragmented government is inefficient. Orange County has one county government, with five supervisors, and 34 cities with 170 elected officials. This is 46 more than the California assembly, senate and executive branch combined!
Each city has its own city manager, city hall, and staff. The total yearly cost for city managers compensation alone exceeds 10 million dollars. Add to this 19 police and 12 fire departments, 10 (as best I could count) water districts, and dozens of other special districts. Oh yes, we also have the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and Orange County Fire Authority, which provide services to the unincorporated parts of the County and to contract cities, mostly in South County. In addition, there are dozens of other governmental agencies such as joint powers authorities and organizations.
Fragmented government undermines democracy. It is impossible for citizens and the media to monitor so many elected officials and candidates for public office. Long election ballots produce voter fatigue and disengagement from civic life. With no one watching, it is not surprising that we are the largest municipality in the nation to declare bankruptcy and that our sheriff is in prison.
Most voters-myself included-haven’t a clue as to who would make a good public administrator, treasurer, sheriff, or clerk. These should be appointed offices and it would be the mayor job to make sure that the people who hold these offices are honest and competent.
Also, because most of us tend to identify with our local cities rather than with the County, there is a lack of what sociologists call “social capital” to draw upon to solve vexing county challenges. This was particularly true during the 1.5 billion dollar County bankruptcy and the $100 million 10-year battle over the fate of the Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro.
Fragmented government can be harmful to business. For example, although there is one sun, the Register reported that each of the 34 cities has its own fees and standards for installing residential solar. Currently, there is no countywide plan for the installation of electric vehicle charging stations. Uniform standards are necessary for green jobs to flourish.
Fragmented government also reduces our County’s political clout. Because there is no “Mayor of Orange County” both parties have to look outside of the County for someone who has statewide name recognition (such as Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jerry Brown) or has the millions to buy it (Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina) to support for state office. We are a convenient cash register for candidates for state and national office. But I do not recall anyone from Orange County-since Assemblyman Ken Corry was elected controller in 1974–being elected to statewide office, though many have tried.
Look at the political careers of Pete Wilson and Diane Feinstein. Both come from much smaller political jurisdictions. Pete Wilson was mayor of San Diego (population 1.3 million) before he was a US Senator and California’s Governor. Likewise, Diane Feinstein was mayor of San Francisco (population 815, 358) before being elected to the US Senate. Few doubt she could have been governor if she wanted the job.
Meanwhile, former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom is now Lt. Governor will be a top contender to replace Jerry Brown. Being mayor of a major city allowed them to garner the media attention required for election to statewide office.
Meanwhile, Curt Pringle, one of the youngest Speakers of the Assembly, was defeated in his bid in 1998 for state treasurer. Similarly, Joe Dunn was defeated in his bid for the Democratic nomination for state controller. And other capable Orange County leaders such as Santa Ana’s Miguel Pulido, Irvine’s Larry Agran, and Supervisors John Moorlach and Bill Campbell-a former Assemblyman–would be considered long shots were they to run for statewide office.
With no single voice to speak for Orange County, we often get stiffed when state and federal funds are awarded. For example, according to Greg Trimache, one of the co-founders of CleanTechOC, “Orange County is not getting anywhere close to their share of stimulus dollars. We’re getting about 30 percent of the national average. … The California Energy Commission awarded $110 million in grants [but] Orange County didn’t get a dime of it.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. The “City and County of San Francisco”-the only city-county consolidated government in California-has one police department, one fire department, and one water department. San Francisco has one mayor and an 11-member Board of Supervisors. Each member is elected from a district where he or she lives. The mayor and council appoint the chief of police, clerk, public administrator and other department heads.
Isn’t it ironic that liberal San Francisco is more structurally efficient than conservative Orange County?
We live in a time of soaring budget deficits and shrinking municipal budgets. We need to ask, is local government organized in a manner that best serves Orange County in the 21st century?
A consolidated city county government should be on the table for discussion. Such consolidations and mergers are, in fact, inevitable.