BOARD OF SUPERVISORS
COUNTY OF SANTA BARBARA
July 18, 1995
TO: Honorable Rodney S. Melville, Presiding Judge
FROM: Timothy J. Staffel, Chair, Board of Supervisors
SUBJECT: Grand Jury Interim Final Report - Response to Citizen Complaints
Please accept the following as the Board of Supervisors response to the findings and recommendations from the Grand Jury Interim Final Report - Response to Citizen Complaints:
FINDING #1: There exists no definite procedure whereby citizen complaints can be filed and acted on within Santa Barbara County or any City contacted within the County. Each administrator, Supervisor, or Council person acts upon each complaint in his or her own way. A citizen does not know with certainty the manner of initiating a complaint nor is assured that the complaint will be heard and decided within a reasonable period of time.
RECOMMENDATION #1a - One employee in the County and in each City should be designated to receive, record, route and track complaints and follow up the resolution of such complaints.
Response - The Board of Supervisors believes that it is appropriate to have an organized, accountable and user-friendly process for receiving and resolving citizen complaints.
However, we respectfully disagree with the Grand Jury's
recommendation that designating staff to create a centralized complaint system is the most effective way to achieve this goal. We also respectfully disagree with the Grand Jury's finding that the County does not have definite procedures for handling citizen complaints. Those procedures are simply decentralized.
For the record, each Board member has a formal procedure in place for promptly responding to and tracking citizen complaints. Similarly, every County Department has a defined system for handling citizen complaints. These systems range from formal to informal and have been crafted on a department by department basis to respond in a timely and meaningful manner to the needs of the constituents served.
While the County does not have a "standardized" or "centralized" system for filing and tracking citizen complaints, we are not convinced standardization or centralization is necessary. Rather, we believe that the current decentralized system is actually more responsive to citizen needs as it allows each Supervisor and Department Head to develop a procedure that works best for the type of services provided, as well as the citizens served.
As an example, Mental Health Services has a very formal process for resolving patient complaints that requires an investigation, preparation of a report and ongoing tracking. Given the sensitivity of the complaints Mental Health Services handles, this type of formal system is appropriate. Conversely, Planning and Development relies on an informal, yet accountable, system that focuses on resolving complaints without a lot of paperwork. This approach allows the Department to respond quickly and decisively to citizens needs.
In contrast, creating a centralized system could actually add a costly layer of bureaucracy that slows the process and frustrates the public. For example, citizens with concerns over their tax bills are more likely to feel County Government has been responsive if they receive an immediate referral to the Tax Collector's senior management to discuss the issue than if they are directed to file a formal complaint. In addition, there are a variety of logistical and financial concerns with a centralized complaint system: Would there be a means to file a complaint at every County facility? Who would provide the staff support? How would the staff support be financed? In conclusion, we believe that the County's decentralized approach to managing citizen complaints is practical and effective, and should be retained.
We also want to acknowledge, however, that the Grand Jury's report has motivated us to reassess our current decentralized citizen complaint response system and determine what could be done to improve it. In light of this reassessment, the Board has asked all Department Heads, that have not already done so, to document their complaint response procedures in writing. By committing complaint response procedures to writing, there will be no question as to how complaints are handled by each County department. This would not require that each complaint receive a written response, but rather that each department's procedures for complaint response be available in writing.
RECOMMENDATION #lb: In the alternative or should it be determined that Recommendation #la does not achieve the desired results of complaint resolution, then the position of Ombudsman should be established by Santa Barbara County and the Cities of Santa Barbara and Santa Maria to receive complaints, route them to the appropriate agency and/or official, ensure that a meeting is conducted within a reasonable time, notify the citizen of the manner in which the complaint is resolved and should, if necessary, be authorized to conduct a mediation hearing. The selection of the Ombudsman should be made in such fashion as to ensure the impartiality of the Ombudsman so that he/she is a true buffer between government and the citizen. For all cities other than those indicated above, Recommendation #la should be implemented.
Response: The Board of Supervisors recognizes that the intent of this recommendation is to improve the County's ability to respond to citizen complaints. For a variety reasons, however, we respectfully disagree that creating an Ombudsman position is a practical or cost effective approach.
First of all, the Grand Jury's report did not present any compelling evidence to substantiate the need for an Ombudsman position. Secondly, the County's current decentralized complaint response system offers a practical, effective and low cost means for resolving citizen complaints. Finally, Board members and their staff assistants already function in much the same capacity as the Grand Jury's proposed Ombudsman, making such a position basically duplicative. The current system offers citizens a personalized response and affords timely and high level determinations as to whether the "complaints" are really: (1) requests for information or service; (2) suggestions to improve current operations; (3) concerns over a Board policy; or (4) complaints about specific operations or staff.
In summary, it is our position that the County's customers will be better served by focusing our efforts on continuously improving the current decentralized citizen complaint system than by pursuing the creation of an Ombudsman position to process complaints.