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First San Mateo County Citizen's Academy Class

Miscellaneous | Personal | Politics

This year, I applied and was accepted to the 2005 Citizens's Academy, a set of 15 "classes" where folks in SMC can learn about county government by meeting and hearing from folks running various parts of county government.

I'm going to try to blog the notes I take each night to my blog, and this is the first entry for 08/23/05.

The first session was an introductory session, describing the county history and its political and organizational structure. We heard from the County Manager, the County Counsel, Supervisor Jerry Hill, as well as received short greetings from a number of other county department heads.

Some random facts: 80% of the county budget goes to criminal justice, health care, and human services. Only 7% goes to support services (ie administrative costs). This is considered very low. The county has about 700,000 residents, and 20 cities. This is a large number of cities for a county in California (ranking #3 or #4 in the number of cities among the 58 California counties).

The county counsel spoke in great detail about the history of San Mateo County and why its charter is relatively unique (and in many ways superior) among those 20 (of 58) counties that are "charter counties". Charter counties are counties that are governed by a charter voted in by the people of the county, rather than by state law. Charter counties came about during the good government movement of the 20's and 30's. SMC was created in the 1850's and was heavily influenced (and still is) by the City & County of San Francisco, its immediate neighbor to the north.

The SMC charter has a few notable characteristics:

1) Supervisors are elected by districts, though everyone across SMC votes for supervisors in all districts. That is, there are 5 districts (each equal in population) and the supervisor for each district must live in the district and the votes cast for supervisor are cast for each district - there are really 5 different races. However, because everyone in the county votes in all five districts, supervisors are not encouraged to be parochial and look out only for the interests of their district. This apparently leads to a much higher level of collegiality and a better functioning county. Only Tehama county has a similar system.

2) There is a 3 term limit on all elected positions (there are only 6 elected positions other than supervisor: asssesor-county clerk-record, controller, coroner, district attorney, sheriff, treasurer-tax collector). SMC was the first county to have term limits for the Board of Supervisors.

3) The county has a "strong county manager" model. County manager (and county counsel) are appointed by the board of supervisors. County manager appoints department heads, prepares budget, does day-to-day implementation.

4) SMC diverges from most counties in the number of elected positions - some offices are combined in SMC.

5) SMC has a civil service system

On average, county managers serve 12 years.

Another discussion was about the Civil Grand Jury. They are a relatively independent body of 19 citizens who take up complaints and conduct independent reviews and issues reports which may suggest specific actions. There was a suggestion that the Civil Grand Jury is a good way for informed, interested citizens to get involved in bettering local government. THe Civil Grand Jury investigates all local government, not just the County.

Jerry Hill's discussion focused on the work life of the supervisors. He noted that the supervisors don't have direct control over most of the county's 5700 employees - in fact, the supervisors appoint only the county manager and county counsel. Supes work together because of countywide voting for district elections.

Interesting, Jerry Hill noted county government is really the local arm of the state government. The relationship between cities, counties, special districts, the state, and the federal government is obviously complicated.

Supervisors get paid about $82k a year plus a $600 a month car allowance (they use their own cars). Supervisors also have about 25 other tasks/assignments (e.g. sitting on regional commissions, district boards, etc). Their biggest job is the county budget.

I found the discussion of the Brown Act to be very interesting. The Brown act is a sunshine law intended to make sure that all county legislative business is done in open meetings. The law basically says that for local legislative bodies, no three members of the same body can discuss any county business outside of an official meeting. This means that two supervisors could talk privately, but three cannot. This also includes "serial meetings" - a supervisor can't say to another supervisor to "pass along the plan" (for example) to a third supervisor. This keeps "backdoor deals" from happening and keeps all deliberation out in front of the public, as much as is practical.

One final note from Jerry Hill - San Mateo County is 76% open space. Thats amazing, considering the densely packed residential areas in the county...

More next week from the Coyote Point Museum where we'll be discussing the Environmental Services Agency.