In her blistering assessment of the AOC, State Auditor Elaine Howle took particular note of the failings of the Judicial Council’s Advisory Committee on Financial Accountability and Efficiency for the Judicial Branch. “It is unclear how the financial advisory committee can ensure accountability of the AOC when it does not exist independently of the AOC, it does not review the AOC’s expenditures, and the AOC can override the financial advisory committee’s recommendations to the Judicial Council,” she wrote.
You can find confirmation of the State Auditor’s findings in two articles from yesterday’s Courthouse News Service. We attach them to this message. The first, by Bill Girdner, documents how the Accountability Committee, contrary to its name and its charge, has served as nothing more than a fig leaf for AOC pay spikes and the diversion of trial court funds to the disastrous CCMS project. The second, by Maria Dinzeo, details the latest action of the Accountability Committee in approving a $5.6 million request to hire more technology staff to plug security holes brought to light by another State Auditor report over a year ago. We note that 108 full-time employees and 51 contractors already work in the AOC’s Information Technology Services Office. We applaud the two committee members who voted against the proposal and insisted on the presentation of a proper business case.
Directors, Alliance of California Judges
By BILL GIRDNER
It was 2010 and the chief justice’s “accountability” committee was new.
The old chief justice set it up on his way out, and he put the incoming chief justice in the chair.
The governator, Arnold, was on his way out too. California’s economy, like the nation’s, was doing a duck dive and the court budget was going down with it. A supremely foolish software project called the Court Case Management System continued to plow through millions of dollars.
Hundreds of judges were getting mad.
Along came the accountability committee, and most of us thought it could be a good thing. The vast bureaucracy created by the old chief sure needed a dose of accountability. And it would be a test for the new chief.
Maybe we were a little naive.
The outgoing chief, Ron George, said the purpose of his new committee was to “promote accountability, transparency and understanding.”
So I instructed our reporter to ask the chair to open it up. I figured the chair had the discretion to allow the press to attend, and indeed she did. But through her spokeswoman at the time, the incoming chief justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, denied our request.
She subsequently led the committee to OK a 3.5% retroactive pay raise for the already overpaid members of a bloated bureaucracy — at a time when the courts were clearly diving into financial trouble.
In retrospect, that meeting told us all we needed to know about the chance for reform of the San Francisco-based court bureaucracy. There was no wind of change, there would be no reform.
Since the committee intended to promote “accountability, transparency and understanding” was doing none of those things, what then was its purpose. Only through time could that be divined.
One clue is that over the years the items on its agenda have often involved pay raises and technology projects, the two areas that have brought the most intense storms of criticism from the Legislature.
In our back issues, for example, the very first reference to an accountability committee agenda item involved a plan to tap trial court funds for $19 million for the infamous CCMS project. The next reference to an accountability agenda item had to do with the 3.5% retroactive pay hike.
The committee then went dormant for a long time.
In 2012, a different committee did hold parts of the bureaucracy accountable, proposing a long list of reforms. That “strategic evaluation” committee was pretty loud at first, then stone-cold silent.
We recently tried to interview the chair and the members for a story on what results they believe they have achieved. But we were met with the silence of the tomb, a total shut down of their voices, despite dozens of phone calls, emails, interview appointments made and broken, all involving judges formerly willing to comment.
They have been completely muffled.
In their list of reforms, of which they no longer speak, and of which, in truth, very few have been implemented, there was a proposal to reorganize the bureaucracy. That proposal was co-opted so fast it made your head spin.
The chief justice simply transferred three of the most powerful people in the bureaucracy to the proposed positions, a bureaucratic game of musical chairs. With a catch. She wanted hefty raises to accompany the big switcheroo.
So what committee would get hauled out of time’s dustbin on very short notice to give those pay hikes the false imprimatur of financial certification based on reason and consensus — you guessed it.
Without any demonstrated need, without any comparison to much lower salaries in other California agencies or equivalent positions in other states, even without minutes, the pay hikes were rammed through the accountability committee. The chief was asking for it, she wanted a decision right away, and they knew what to do.
Afterwards, the committee again went largely quiet, meeting only intermittently, until last week.
With nothing but a cursory presentation from the staff, it OK’d a request for $5 million for a mini-CCMS project that would link trial court case info to other state agencies, an explicit goal of the long-defunct and discredited CCMS. The only judges to vote against it were from Orange County and Los Angeles, two of the most ardent CCMS critics.
So I asked our reporter why this project did not come through the technology committee, as it seems it should. She said it was going to be approved first by the accountability committee.
That’s when I understood the committee’s function. It has nothing to do with accountability, and it has all to do with quick approval of the bureaucracy’s latest plan to blow some serious public money. More than anything, the gift from the old chief to the new chief was a magic wand that, when in need, will sprinkle financial approval over a pet project. It is a whitewash committee.
By MARIA DINZEO
(CN) – In a searing report on California’s court bureaucracy last month, the state auditor singled out the financial accountability committee for failing its mission. Last week, the same committee approved a multi-million-dollar request for a statewide technology project, inviting a fresh blast of criticism from trial judges who said it looked to be a waste of money.
The tech project would cost $5.6 million to build data exchanges between the courts, law enforcement agencies and the Judicial Branch Statistical Information System. The project would rely almost entirely on contractors who also make up the bulk of the cost.
The same type of exchange was a heavily-promoted feature of an earlier statewide tech project, the Court Case Management System, which also relied heavily on outside contractors in spending $500 million, before it was abandoned.
The latest spending idea brought immediate comparison to much smaller requests from impoverished courts in Northern California that were unanimously shut down last year by the Judicial Council, which is chaired by the state’s chief justice who also appoints most of its members.
“It’s an awful lot of money when they couldn’t spare $72,000 for Siskiyou County,” said Judge Greg Dohi of Los Angeles.
He was referring to the hat-in-hand visit to San Francisco by judges from Siskiyou Superior Court in the far north of California. In addition to rejecting their very modest request, the council voted unanimously against $82,000 for Mono and $300,000 for Del Norte County, all courts trying to avoid firing their employees.
The presiding judges in those courts were unavailable for comment on the latest vote in favor of a much larger sum for contract employees on a tech project. The only two phone numbers for Mono Superior Court both lead only to an automated message that says, “Due to significant cutbacks in our court’s budget, we are not answering any public phone calls.”
Set Up to Fail
Judge Michele Flurer of Los Angeles, who voted against the latest tech request, said in an interview, “I had insufficient information to approve it. In concept it’s a good proposal but I just want to make sure that we have sufficient information to make that decision. I want a business case.”
She added, “I’m secretary treasurer for the California Judges Association and I’d like to see good support for any money being spent on behalf of the courts.”
The new tech project will cost $5.6 million over five years, to allow trial courts to send information to the DMV, Department of Social Services, Highway Patrol, Department of Justice and the JBSIS, for judicial statistics. It will require eight new contract workers, costing $3.2 million of the total.
The proposal to hire more contract workers for the court administrative office runs contrary to specific points made in the state auditor’s lengthy critique, and it runs counter to the position taken very recently by the accountability committee itself.
“The AOC’s use of contractors, temporary workers, and consultants has resulted in significantly higher costs than the AOC would have incurred had it hired state employees to perform this work,” wrote Auditor Elaine Howle. Throughout her report, she referred to the 800-strong, San Francisco-based agency by its former name, the Administrative Office of the Courts.
She estimated that if state employees were used rather than contractors, the savings over three years would total $21 million. The auditor also said the accountability committee was set up for failure.
“Even though the Judicial Council created the Advisory Committee on Financial Accountability and Efficiency to promote transparency, accountability, efficiency, and understanding of the AOC and the judicial branch, the Judicial Council did not ensure that the financial advisory committee fulfilled its intended purpose,” said Howle.
The accountability committee is chaired by Justice Richard Huffman who was originally named to the Judicial Council in 1997 by former chief justice Ron George, and later appointed to chair the accountability committee by the current chief justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye.
Just a few months ago, in August, he told the council that the court administrative agency should reduce spending on technology consultants. He also referred to his own committee as the “appointed nitpickers for the council.”
The administrative office of the courts, which now refers to itself simply as “the staff,” currently includes 160 information technology employees, including 51 working on contracts. But an IT division manager said that wasn’t enough.
Systems manager Mark Yuan told the committee he has only one full time and three contract workers who can work on the data exchanges. “These five exchanges are purely brand new development projects that don’t exist today so the effort required to develop the project is significantly greater,” he said.
That argument did not sit well with judges from the 500-member Alliance of California Judges who over the years have blasted the court agency’s enormous spending on tech projects as a “boondoggle,” the equivalent to a “Yugo,” and a wrong-headed waste of funds.
“Surely they could move five people around,” said Judge Dohi who is an Alliance director. “The audit specifically warned against excessive reliance on consultants. Regardless of whether they are consultants or full-time employees, the last thing Judicial Council should be doing is adding to a staff that has been roundly criticized as bloated.”
Last week’s accountability committee meeting was run by the vice-chair, Justice Kathleen O’Leary from Orange County, in Huffman’s absence. After Flurer questioned the financial merit of the $5.6 million project, O’Leary said the matter before the committee was simply a budget request as opposed to an authorization for actual spending.
At that point, Curt Soderlund, the court agency’s chief administrative officer, interjected, “We did talk to the Department of Finance and programs like this one that have statewide implications, that’s what they’re in support of.”
But a spokesman for the governor’s finance department would not say whether the department supported the project. In an email, H.D. Palmer said, “If there were now a proposal that the Judicial Council would want to submit, we would consider it in the context of the May Revision.”
The May Revision refers to a final adjustment in next year’s budget before it goes into effect at the beginning of July.
Even if the data exchange funds were included in that version of Governor Jerry Brown’s massive California budget, they would still need to pass through a budget committee run by Assemblymember Reginald Jones-Sawyer, a Democrat from Los Angeles.
Jones-Sawyer pushed for the state auditor’s review of the court administrative agency, an audit that was fought by its lobbying arm. He has been outspoken in criticizing the court bureaucracy’s spending in the face of mass layoffs at trial courts up and down the state.
In response to last week’s vote, his spokesman said it was too early to comment.
One of the many faults in the court agency’s financial stewardship, said the state auditor, was that the powerful administrative office kept the committees and council in the dark, comments that were echoed by the few judges who voted against the latest tech project.
“It is unclear how the financial advisory committee can ensure accountability of the AOC when it does not exist independently of the AOC, it does not review the AOC’s expenditures, and the AOC can override the financial advisory committee’s recommendations,” said auditor Howle.
“For example, the rules of court require the financial advisory committee to make recommendations to the Judicial Council regarding the AOC’s budget concepts. We reviewed the documentation the AOC submitted to the financial advisory committee and the Judicial Council, and we found there was not always sufficient detail to justify the budget concept.”
Judge Kim Garlin Dunning of Orange County was the second committee member who voted against the request, and her comments reflected those of the auditor.
“I’m not sure that there is enough in this for a business case to be developed,” she said during the meeting. “We’re asking for a lot of money here. What is the business case to have the Judicial Council in charge of doing these data exchanges when we don’t even know how many systems we’re going to have. Maybe this is something where courts should be working together, not the Judicial Council.”
With the end of the statewide CCMS project, most courts have been moving to private companies to handle their case management software, and those software systems could already include a means of connecting to other state agencies — the same functionality that that $5.6 million tech request is supposed to achieve.
‘Have You Asked the Courts’
Mark Dusman who directs the staff’s IT division told the committee that when budget changes are proposed to the finance department, they usually contain a very preliminary business case, with details to be added later.
“To the issue of it being a Judicial Council project, I quibble with that in that while the council staff agency will be supporting the project moving forward it doesn’t mean it won’t occur without the courts’ participation,” he said.
Judge Flurer shot back, “My concern is your asking us to approve these amounts and some of these things have already been accomplished by the courts. I hate for every court that has already done it to have to be useless at this point because you’ve redefined it in a different way.”
She added, “I’d like to know who has these already in place. Orange County and Los Angeles has exchanges that provides some of this information. My concern is we’re going to duplicate efforts.”
Referring to the statewide CCMS project, Dusman answered, “Only two or three courts have actually moved to a new case management system since the demise of the statewide system. All courts will eventually go to a modern case management system, and all of them will be looking to replace their data exchanges.”
Flurer pursued, “Have you asked the courts if they want the Judicial Council to accomplish this?”
“Timing-wise, they have not,” Dusman replied.
Other judges on the committee said they supported the proposal because it was simply a request for funds that may very well be rejected by either the governor’s Department of Finance or the Legislature.
“What we’re being asked to do is recommend in support the Department of Finance letter,” said O’Leary. “If we’re funded, we’re not the last stop on this train. We’re not making technology decisions right now. We’re not making the final decision here.”
Judge Joyce Hinrichs of Humboldt County said other committees would be accountable for how the money is actually spent, she said. “In how the money will be spent there are multiple committees that are specialized in this that will be better able to direct staff about what needs to happen,” she said, adding, “We may not even get the money in the first place.”
In the end, the committee voted 11-2 to approve the funding request.