Another View On Urban Consolidation

FEB. 7, 2011

Professor Fred Smoller, director of Brandman University’s public administration program in Irvine anda Calwatchdog advisory board member, rebuts this column by Steven Greenhut


If Orange County were a city, it would be the third-largest 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, Ind., Louisville, Ky., Honolulu and Kansas City, Kansas, are among 30 U.S. municipalities that have consolidated city-county governments.

Don’t dismiss the idea before considering some of the pitfalls of governmental sprawl.

Fragmented government is inefficient [“Bigger is not better,” Steven Greenhut column, Nov. 14]. Orange County has one county government, with five supervisors, and 34 cities with an aggregate 170 elected officials. This is 46 more positions than in the California Assembly, Senate and state executive branch combined. Each city has its own city manager, city hall and staff. The total yearly cost for city manager compensation alone exceeds $10 million. Add to this 19 police departments and 12 fire departments, 10 (as best I could count) water districts, and dozens of other special districts. We also have the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and Orange County Fire Authority, which service unincorporated parts of the county and contract cities, mostly in South County.

Fragmented government undermines democracy. It is more difficult for citizens and the media to monitor so many elected officials and candidates for 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 former 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’s job to make sure the appointees 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 county challenges. This was particularly true during the $1.5 billion county bankruptcy in 1994 and the $100 million, 10-year battle over the fate of the former 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 political parties have to look outside the county for someone with 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.

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. 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. 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.

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