Supervisors prove county can survive without a CAO
“County needs to hire a CAO, and soon”
That was the headline of a Feather Publishing editorial in November 2012. The paper criticized the board of supervisors for trying to run the day-to-day operations of the county on their own, without the benefit of a professional chief administrative officer.
The editorial gave more than a dozen reasons why the supervisors’ hands-on approach was a bad idea. In short, we said the board had good intentions but that they didn’t know what they were doing.
Well, that was 16 months ago. And, with a few exceptions, we have to admit we were wrong.
Since the county fired former CAO Jack Ingstad in April 2012, the supervisors have not only rolled up their sleeves and streamlined the county’s operations, they balanced two budgets and put some cash in the rainy-day fund. They also accomplished something the former CAO never could — they improved morale.
An example came during last week’s board meeting. About 20 county department heads and elected officials — usually the some of the board’s harshest critics — praised the supervisors for their work.
“The operating relationship between the department heads and the supervisors is functioning very well due to the cooperative effort of all.” That’s what the chairman of the county’s management council had to say. He added, “The current management structure has been successful.”
Board Chairman Jon Kennedy, who led the charge insisting the county didn’t need a CAO, appeared pleased. He even asked the council chairman to repeat the statement, undoubtedly for the newspaper’s benefit.
Putting the county on the right track has required a lot of work by the supervisors. For two budget cycles — with the aid of a very competent budget officer, Susan Scarlett — the supervisors have drilled deep to better understand how the county works. During dozens of exhaustive face-to-face meetings, the supervisors put on their CAO hats and went over each department’s budget — line by line. They made some painful budget cuts, sometimes eliminating jobs in the process.
When we first heard about these budget workshops, we said this was a perfect example of why the county needed a CAO. We argued the supervisors didn’t have the time or the expertise to conduct an exercise like that.
They made the time. And as a result, they gained a boots-on-the-ground understanding of how the county operates. Apparently, they earned the respect of many county workers in the process. There is a spirit of cooperation that did not exist when a CAO was in charge.
Not having a CAO still has its drawbacks. The continued success of a “no-CAO” model will require the supervisors to remain very active and engaged in the county’s operations.
The county will undoubtedly have some opportunities slip through the cracks.
There is an increased burden on the county counsel, who must handle many traditional CAO duties.
There is no central point-person to gather all the information and present the supervisors with all the ramifications of their decisions.
The supervisors have been forced to hire more consultants to fill the CAO void. Budget officer Scarlett is an example.
When the economy finally improves and prosperity returns to Plumas County, hiring a CAO should be toward the top of the county’s “to do” list. But until that time comes, we must give credit where it is due.
The supervisors have done an exceptional job managing the team without a head coach.
And, yes, we were wrong.