Date: May 23, 2016

*OCDA responds to Orange County Grand Jury report on Public Administrator

SANTA ANA, Calif. – The Orange County District Attorney (OCDA) announced today that the Public Administrator (PA) has made big strides in improving the agency and has reduced its backlog substantially after the OCDA was assigned the agency by the Orange County Board of Supervisors (BOS) in 2014. The Orange County Grand Jury also made public today a report titled, “Changing of the Guardian: Life after Reorganization of the Public Administrator and Public Guardian Offices.” The OCDA will only speak to the misguided findings in regards to the PA, as the Public Guardian (PG) falls under the Health Care Agency (HCA). The OCDA will continue its good working relationship with the HCA and the PG.

The Role of the PA
The PA manages the court-ordered administration of estates for Orange County decedents that do not have someone qualified or willing to act for them. The PA secures a decedent’s property, locates qualified heirs and/or beneficiaries, administers the decedent’s estate, and also processes claims for the decedent’s creditors, marshals the estate’s assets, pays taxes on behalf of the estate, and transfers the estate’s assets to the decedent’s heirs and/or beneficiaries. The PA investigates referrals from the Orange County Sheriff-Coroner’s Office, when there is property left behind and the decedent’s next of kin is not located. The PA is also responsible for General Relief Burials of indigent decedents, and provides deceased indigent veterans an honorable burial. The PA derives its operating revenue from a small statutory commission and the Orange County General Fund for their services, and the bulk of the estates’ funds are distributed to the heirs and/or beneficiaries by court order.

In 2008-2009, the grand jury released a report in regards to the PG and the PA, which at the time was one single agency. That report stated that the grand jury “found lack of financial accountability, lack of current and meaningful policies and procedures, questionable personnel administration, an outdated case management database, and unmanageable deputy caseload sizes.”

In March 2014, the PA was assigned to the OCDA by the BOS to address and repair the mismanagement. OCDA senior management and then-Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Henderson was tasked with evaluating the agency and restructuring and rebuilding the PA and inherited a large caseload backlog, an agency with low staff morale, unnecessary top-heavy bureaucracy, and mismanagement where staff cuts were routinely made year after year to make the yearly budget. Henderson had just retired after 28 years with OCDA, including 10 years as the assistant district attorney in charge of the Major Fraud Unit, five years as a homicide prosecutor, and a record of over 100 jury trials, with wide administrative and personnel experience. The BOS formally authorized her re-employment as an extra help retiree to act as Interim Chief Deputy PA with a 4 to 1 vote. She was tasked to manage the PA and hire a permanent Chief Deputy. She has since overseen the day to day management including personnel decisions and discipline, reviewing and re-structuring the PA office, recruitment, problem solving, and the interaction with the PG and HCA.

Restructuring and Rebuilding
When the OCDA took over PA, it found a toxic culture where staff initiative was not rewarded and staff performance issues, conflicts, and complaints went unaddressed. There was an acceptance of case delays, large backlogs, and large caseloads. There was an established bureaucratic chain of command, and the agency was cash starved, which did not permit for necessary training.

The OCDA immediately went to work and made changes in PA management and organization, and implemented new policies and hired an outside expert to rehabilitate a broken government bureaucracy by inserting fresh ideas and private business acumen, when appropriate. 

The positive changes include:

  • Collaborative work including joint case meetings to take advantage of others’ experience and knowledge,
  • Staff empowered to take initiative and encouraged to consult with senior PA management, improving staff morale,
  • Accounting function, property function, and deputy function report to the Chief Deputy (one case, one team),
  • Supporting deputy level decision-making on cases, and group input on group decisions,
  • Firearms storage system and policy implemented for safe storage and control of weapons,
  • A safety audit was conducted by an expert and led to equipment being purchased and staff trained to protect themselves in difficult environmental conditions, and
  • All staff hired have met minimum requirements, are approved by OCDA Human Resources, and comply with all County rules and regulations.

What resulted was a more efficient PA:

  • The PA is now moving real estate and personal property to auction more quickly and has held four real property auctions since 2014 with an increased attendance,
  • The PA’s backlog has been reduced by 65 percent,
  • Held a well-publicized old car auction which brought in approximately $130,000,
  • Increased the speed of posting cars on Govdeals.com,
  • Launched a social media campaign promoting the July 2016 auction of nine houses throughout Orange County. For more information on the upcoming auction, please visit the PA website at https://ocgov.com/gov/pa/div/realproperty/auctions/properties, and
  • Has successfully managed the 2015-2016 fiscal year budget to achieve needed revenues, while simultaneously holding down administrative costs below budget, which means the PA is now living within its means.

The grand jury interviewed PA staff, including disgruntled staff that went through the transition of the PA to the OCDA. The OCDA senior management staff that oversees the PA was also interviewed and presented to the grand jury credible information not reflected in their report. The PowerPoint presentation in pdf titled, “Public Administrator Update,” is available on the OCDA website, under Reports.

The OCDA plans to refute the inaccurate findings in its response, due July 22, 2016. There is an internal PA audit being conducted and the report is scheduled to be released by June 30, 2016.

The PA is now run efficiently and PA staff is known to go above and beyond, even on occasion taking home a beloved family pet left behind until a decedent’s next of kin or a forever home can be located.