Friday, December 18, 2009
Anonymous Blogger Is Scathing Critic of AOC
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Administrative Office of the Courts has been under a lot of heat lately.
Unions have accused the agency of hoarding money for the development of a statewide computerized case management system despite an estimated $400 million funding gap the state’s judiciary is facing for this fiscal year.
A legislative committee formed last year to review waste in government agencies held a hearing in October to review the organization’s spending.
In September, several members of the state court bench launched the Alliance of California Judges, an organization that is openly challenging the state’s judicial hierarchy.
And documenting it all, amid scathing editorial commentary, is the AOC Watcher website—located at aocwatcher.wordpress.com—which launched in August.
Run by an anonymous blogger who did not respond to requests for an interview, the website provides a critical review of the AOC and its activities, drawn from the media, commentators and its own sources.
It not-so-affectionately refers to Chief Justice Ronald M. George as “King George” and compares the AOC to a “less cuddly and not as efficiently run” Death Star—the moon-sized spaceship super weapon capable of destroying planets from “Star Wars.”
On Nov. 2, the blogger ran an excerpt from a Sacramento Bee editorial which denounced the AOC as “inept,” commenting that it was “just the tip of the iceberg.”
Horan Loves It
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles Horan declares, “I love it.”
He says the blog is “just another bit of information, another information outlet about the AOC,” which he insists is important to have for any public agency.
“I mean really, what’s the secret?” the jurist asks. “As long as it’s accurate, if it has to do with the manner in which the government does business and how the government spends money, you’re darn right it ought to be up there on the Internet.”
Horan, a leader of the Alliance of California Judges, said he first learned that the AOC was continuing to hire employees, even though it had announced a hiring freeze, through the blog. “My jaw just dropped,” he recalls. “I thought they were in a full-on freeze.”
Although Horan suggests that “some of the stuff is a little bit over the top,” he insists “some of it is dead on the money,” opining that the discussion regarding the legislative committee convened to look into the AOC operations had “summed up what was going on.”
Judge J. Stephen Czuleger, himself a sharp critic of the AOC during his tenure as presiding judge, remarks that “some of the comments border on the silly, but others are worthy of further thought,” calling the overall blog “fascinating.”
Czuleger suggests that the blog is “a good opportunity for some folks to get things off of their chests,” and is beneficial to those who peruse its contents.
“I’m a firm believer in fresh air, and fresh air may feel a little challenging in the beginning, but I think in the long run it has value,” he says.
‘Not Very Productive’
However Ron Overholt, chief deputy director of the courts, suggests that the blog is “not very productive in terms of trying to carry on accurate and appropriate communications.”
Overholt says “it’s fine to have that kind of forum” where people can anonymously voice their frustrations with the judicial system but “what I don’t think is fine is that there are rumors and allegations that are unsubstantiated or that have been cleared up and are put out there as truth and then picked up on by others.”
“We think we should be able to have direct communication about…any financial issues, how the branch is spending its resources, you know, issues around technology, issues around facilities, issues around budget, all of those are fair game for open direct communication and shouldn’t be discussed in terms of there’s a smoking gun or there’s allegations about things.” Overholt insists that the organization is “an open book.”
The “most important thing we can do, and what we strive to do,” is “get out timely accurate information…so folks may not agree on the merits of a decision that is made but they won’t have a question about what decision was made or how things were decided,” he says.
The AOC “can always be second-guessed, and that’s fine,” Overholt remarks, positing that with the size of the state judiciary, getting everyone to agree on an issue is “not even realistic” and that the existence of dissention is “not surprising.”
“When you have that many voices and opinions and feelings mixed in…it’s not surprising that people will need to find ways of expressing themselves and this [blog] is one,” Overholt says. “People have a right to express themselves and I hope they do.”
But he cautioned, those in the AOC hierarchy are “not reading it, so it’s not serving that purpose in terms of engaging us in dialogue about it, if that’s goal of the people who are posting on it.”
The way to get a response, Overholt says, would be to contact him or Bill Vickery the administrative director of the courts, and “we’ll have lunch or whatever.”
A ‘Frightful’ Organization
Even with Overholt’s overtures, Czuleger suggests that “the AOC can be, frightful, shall we say?”
More than one jurist contacted for comment declined to speak out against the group on the record.
“It’s a sad commentary that individual judges are afraid of being quoted publicly for fear or reprisals by King George and the AOC,” one says. “It’s a sign of the times that this blogger has to remain anonymous.”
The blogger apparently also has some concerns about having his or her identity revealed, reporting rumors that the AOC is “on a witch hunt trying to figure out who the AOC Watcher is,” in a Sept. 21 posting.
Overholt flatly denies that any attempt to identify the blogger is afoot.
“We’re not in the top secret investigation business,” he says. “And I don’t know what we would do about it if we knew who it was, frankly.”
Czuleger says he has heard theories that the blogger is a judge in Northern California. Or one in Southern California. Or an AOC staffer. Or an ex-AOC staffer. Or someone from a labor union. Or a lobbyist.
He adds that someone even accused him of being the person behind the site, which he denies.
“I don’t type,” Czuleger insists. “I am one of the most low-tech judges on the entire court.” This blog, he claims, is the first he has ever read.
Although Czuleger acknowledges that “unidentified sources are always by nature somewhat suspect,” he suggests that the blogger’s anonymity adds to the allure.
“I would really like to know who it is,” Czuleger admits, noting that “they seem to have their finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the ranch these days” and “clearly some inside people are talking.”
Overholt says that if the blogger is in fact an AOC staff member, “I would hope they would go to their supervisor or one of the directors or me with their concerns” before resorting to more postings.
“If it’s a judge, I hope it would be the same,” Overholt adds. “I would hope that people would feel comfortable and free to raise issues.”
He calls it “unfortunate” that some judicial officers fear reprisals if they speak out.
“I just don’t know where that would come from,” Overholt claims. “There’s never been any kind of retribution or push-back as a result of people who have criticisms or concerns about the Judicial Council or the AOC.”
Czuleger speculates that the blog arose out of “an undercurrent of dissatisfaction out there” which “bubbled up in this fashion,” suggesting that the real issue is “why this undercurrent is out there.”
Overholt suggests that it is “a function of a terrible economy and fear and concern in the court community among judges and court staff and AOC staff about what’s happening with the budget of the courts and the AOC and the state generally.” In such a situation, he says “it’s not surprising there are some scapegoats raised.”
The “real problem,” Overholt claims, is that the judiciary lost more than $400 million in funding this year and “all of those dollars were important.”
With courts statewide closing one day a month and furloughing employees, Overholt says the AOC is also “doing our part, the same as the courts are.”
He explains that the organization created an optional one-day-a-month furlough, which half of the staff volunteered to participate in, from January through July, before making the furlough mandatory for everyone in August.
The AOC also implemented a hiring freeze, with the intent that no new staff would be hired until the budget passed, he says. “But that didn’t mean that no staff would ever be hired to replace people who left or provide critical services.”
Overholt says he believes three people were hired, “and that became a news story, but those few folks were hired after we had the budget and knew what we were going to have and after some cutback measures were implemented.”
But by far, the majority of the criticism heaped on the AOC comes from its development of a statewide case management system project known as CCMS.
The billion-dollar plus project has been in development for the past seven years, and is expected to be completed in the next few months Overholt says.
He emphasizes that $105 million has been diverted from the project’s budget to help trial courts offset cuts, and that the AOC is “trying to balance having technology and what they need to stay operative.”
Overholt insists that the project is “necessary” to keep the courts operating, since their existing case management systems are “old and antiquated” and “they’re going to have to spent money to put something there eventually.”
Additionally, he says, “We can’t be in a situation where if we have a bad year or two bad years that we shut down everything that we’ve been working on for years,” especially when it comes to developing new technology.
“Technology has a pretty short shelf life, and if you shut down technology, by the time you start it up again not only would it be more expensive but it would be stale and it wouldn’t make any sense,” Overholt claims. “It’d be a waste of investment.”
Presiding Judge Charles “Tim” McCoy similarly advised the LACBA Board of Trustees at their November meeting that “some work needs to continue” to develop technology systems for the courts and that continuing to tap the AOC’s technology fund was not an appropriate long-term solution to the judiciary’s budget crisis.
McCoy advocated instead for appropriating monies generated from penalties and assessments for traffic tickets and criminal convictions, which were increased as part of SB 1407 on Jan. 1 of this year and slated for court construction projects.
The blogger apparently would agree with McCoy’s proposal, and his insistence that keeping the courthouse doors open is the paramount concern.
On each furlough day, the blogger has posted comments about the court closures, most recently writing:
“That’s the AOC, folks. Where we believe in funding buildings and computer software, but not the people to run them. And where we believe serving the public, means shutting our doors to those who most need our services. That’s right. We’re the AOC.”
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company