Politics & Government

Oversight office was costly, California Senate officials say


Several days after The Sacramento Bee reported that the California Senate has dropped an office devoted to government oversight – prompting a spate of negative publicity for new Senate leader Kevin de León – Senate officials attributed the decision to cost-cutting and a desire to be efficient with taxpayer resources.

They provided new details Thursday about how much the Office of Oversight and Outcomes cost and, in a separate personnel move, acknowledged terminating two energy committee consultants as de León continues to shake up the Senate staff.

“We value what the Office of Oversight and Outcomes did. But with the costs, we can’t afford it and the pro tem thought it would be more effective to do it through policy committees,” said de León spokesman Anthony Reyes.

Dan Reeves, de León’s chief of staff, said the cost of running the office was $642,329 a year, or about $3.9 million for the six years the office existed – considerably more than the $379,000 in employee salaries listed on the Senate’s May payroll documents. A part-time contract employee, health benefits and pension contributions account for the higher figure, Reeves said.

The Office of Oversight and Outcomes was created in 2008 by de León’s predecessor, former Sen. Darrell Steinberg, who hired a team of former journalists to dig into numerous aspects of state government. Its staff members were considered employees of Steinberg’s and their jobs expired when his term ended on Nov. 30. About 200 Senate staff members met a similar fate this fall when the lawmakers they worked for termed out, Reeves said.

After de León took over as Senate leader, Reeves said, he decided oversight functions could be performed in a different way through the Senate’s existing policy committees.

De León “expects all of them to have a very robust oversight agenda,” Reeves said.

“We are going to have to look harder at programs that already exist. Instead of simply focusing on creating new programs, we need to prioritize examining existing programs and make sure they’re working well.”

Dorothy Korber, a former Sacramento Bee reporter who worked in the oversight office for six years, said her unit produced investigations that benefited taxpayers. She pointed to reports that led to leadership changes at the Department of Fair Employment and Housing and in the prison system, as well as a report that revealed school districts wasted money intended to feed poor children.

“These weren’t reports that just sat there like cordwood. Ours were actually read,” Korber said. “It helped the Senate’s reputation to show there were these hard-hitting reports that got results at a time the Senate was facing some scandals of its own.”

She said eliminating the office with such short notice is itself wasteful, as three investigations that were underway have now come to a halt.

De León has taken heat for eliminating the oversight office. Numerous California newspapers published editorials critical of the decision and a Wall Street Journal columnist wrote that de León’s “real problem with the office is that it undercut his own priorities,” such as expanding clean energy programs.

Differing views on how to advance de León’s energy priorities led the Senate leader to terminate two staff members who worked on the energy and utilities committee, Reeves said. Legislative employees are not civil servants and can be dropped without cause, but it’s unusual for policy committee staff members to be ousted in a political leadership change.

Kellie Smith and Jacqueline Kinney were replaced this week by Jay Dickenson, a director at the California Energy Commission, and Nidia Bautista, a de León staff member who worked on environmental legislation.

The staffing switch, Reeves said, is “a reflection of Kevin’s strong interest in having assets at the utilities committee with a great deal of experience in the green economy, renewable energy and clean air to help drive the policy agenda around climate change.”

The termination of Smith and Kinney comes on top of 39 other Senate employees who were laid off last month. Senate officials blamed those layoffs on a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall. A couple of weeks later the Senate laid off a shoeshiner who had been paid $13,000 a year to provide information to Capitol visitors.

Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @LaurelRosenhall.