Grand jury: Give county 'unhindered' authority to outsource | July 24, 2013 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - July 24, 2013

Grand jury: Give county 'unhindered' authority to outsource

by Dave Boyce

The discretion available to corporate managers — the ability to hire contractors to address short- or longer-term needs — was once available to the San Mateo County manager, and that discretion should be restored, according to a new report by the county grand jury.

A provision in the county charter, removed around 1978, invested the county manager with the duty to employ "experts and consultants to perform work and advise, in connection with any of the functions of the county, when economically advantageous," the grand jury report says. The report recommends amending the charter to restore the manager's options for "unhindered outsourcing," including the hiring of private contractors.

Contractors can bring a set of skills that "are crucial to the success of any business, whether public or private," the report says. "Because technology is seemingly out of date by the time it is installed and workloads in many departments can fluctuate significantly, the County should have the legal right that it once had, which is to utilize outside contractors when the County Manager deems it economically and/or operationally necessary," the grand jury report says. "As such, the Board should submit for voter approval a Charter provision granting the County an unrestricted right to outsource."

The grand jury report did not come out of the blue. County management set the context in February with the release of a 35-page staff report on ways to move county government toward becoming an "agile organization (with a) more flexible workforce, one designed in significant part to expand the use of fixed-term employees and outside contractors."

In March, the Board of Supervisors gave County Manager John Maltbie a green light to try out some of his recommendations, including launching pilot programs, county spokesperson Marshall Wilson said in an email.

There is opposition from the unions that represent county employees: the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). While the unions do not oppose using contractors for expertise not available in-house, they oppose contracting for services provided by "dedicated county employees," the grand jury report says.

The local chapter of the AFSCME did not respond to an interview request.

Staying current

In a March 12 presentation introducing the staff report to the supervisors, Mr. Maltbie argued that county government is being left behind by technology, that citizens' appreciation and understanding of government is lower while their expectations are higher, and that the state and federal governments are shifting responsibilities to local government. There are lessons to be learned from the private sector, Mr. Maltbie said.

With an ongoing deficit and now-routine drawing from county reserves, taxpayers approved a new 10-year half-cent sales tax in November 2012 that is expected to bring in $60 million annually. The county evidently has taxpayer support and "10 years to right the ship," Mr. Maltbie said. "We now have a real obligation, I think, to create an organization that is financially stable and sustainable and able to deliver quality services to meet the rapidly changing community needs and revitalize the ideals of democracy and community."

Mr. Maltbie said he expects the county government's permanent staff to shrink by 10 percent to 15 percent in coming years. Hiring contract workers would reduce liability costs in that contractors don't receive health care and pension benefits, the staff report says. As for other sources of periodic help, the report recommends temporary employees, volunteers, interns, citizens helping themselves through organizations such as a neighborhood watch, and a sharing of facilities and resources by all public agencies in the county.

County management, the staff report says, should engage the labor unions as full partners, implement a private-sector-like pension plan, invest in employee training, take steps to attract a multi-generational workforce, and invest in new technology and the infrastructure needed to support it.

The county charter would need amending to implement the staff report's recommendations, the staff report says, an idea that has the support of the county grand jury. While the opinions of a civilian grand jury do not have the force of law, the 19 county residents who sit on it are intended to be "a voice of the people and conscience of the community," according to a mission statement on the grand jury's website.

Grand juries originated in England in the 12th century, were first empaneled in North America in 1635 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and are a feature of self-government in 42 states, the website says.

Go to for the grand jury report (PDF may take time to load).

Go to for the staff report (PDF) on agile organizations.


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