Monday, July 2, 2012

Marin Voice: Grand jury report urging independent analyst deserves 2nd look

By Richard Rubin
Posted: 07/01/2012 06:30:00 AM PDT

SOME OF THE findings from the Marin civil grand jury's report that casts doubts on the county's abilities to police itself effectively raise questions that should not be quickly brushed aside.

The report recommended creation of an office of independent legislative and budget analysis.

San Francisco's budget and legislative analyst, Harvey Rose, says his office saved the city $30.8 million over the past seven years at an annual cost of less than $300,000. Marin, with one-third the population, operates on a much smaller scale.

Predictably, the response from Marin supervisors was less than enthusiastic. Some see it as just another needless layer of bureaucracy.

Jurors perform an inestimable and often thankless public service at little cost. Their efforts are entitled to serious consideration. At the very least, the supervisors owe it to these volunteer civic watchdogs to have read the report — something which Supervisor Susan Adams, for one, admitted not having done.

The report concluded that it found "actions and inactions" resulting in "the loss of millions of dollars and which may cost millions more..."

It cited three examples in which alleged lack of county oversight led to egregious consequences: escalating public employee pension liability that some estimates put in the billions, a $30 million computer snafu, and most recently the Lucasfilm Grady Ranch fiasco.

Taking each in order, few would disagree that the drastically under-funded pension system has become the single biggest noose around the county's (and the state's) neck. Granted, this crisis has been in the making for decades. Recent declarations from the board suggest this may get the attention it demands.

If the jury's prodding leads to genuine pension reforms, that alone may justify its work. Failure to implement a lasting solution in the near future that can significantly bolster the county's financial footing would validate the jury's concerns. The board has yet to signal its intentions.

The county's decision last year to scuttle a trouble-plagued $30 million software system because of major flaws compelled officials to sue the system integrator, Deloitte Consulting, for millions of dollars in losses.

Whether the county made a conscious and unwise investment in software that it knew was not fully tested or relied upon assurances it had reason to believe trustworthy is unclear. Regardless, the bigger issue is whether stricter third party oversight and monitoring in advance of signed agreements might have avoided some very costly decisions.

Both the computer and pension liability issues were natural candidates for the kind of intensive cost/benefits scrutiny that an impartial budget analyst can bring to bear.

The Lucasflim imbroglio is a different matter. It stemmed from a breakdown in the governing process and miscommunication at critical junctures that fostered a deepening mistrust in the developer that was eventually irreversible.

Since this involved a respected Marin-friendly entrepreneur whose offer was beneficial in numerous ways, might it have been the absence of more adroit back channel maneuvering rather than any lack of number crunching or even regulatory barriers that killed the deal?

Board President Steve Kinsey thinks there is already "significant opportunity for public involvement and oversight." Maybe it's not enough.

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