Dollars Without Sense

For 25 years, Harvey Ross has rooted out the waste and lies of politicians and bureaucrats. But some say he's too lost in the line items to see the big picture

"They wouldn't return our phone calls requesting information and they could never remember our names right when they did call," says the analyst.

Rose associate Ken Bruce denies any tension between the two offices, but he still can't get the names right. He calls Jiminez "Marty Gomez" and can't recall the names of the others.

During one finance committee hearing, Hallinan yelled at McCall in front of the audience, "I don't need some 22-year-old telling me what to do!"

For a year and a half, the analysts struggled under mounting opposition from Rose's shop and some supervisors to provide the sweeping analysis Britt and Walker had found missing in Rose's reports. McCall left under a cloud of hostility, followed closely by Price. In mid-1991, the lone holdout, Jiminez, packed her pads and pencils and went back to MALDEF. The analysts' positions were soon eliminated from the board's budget.

McCall, who now serves as an analyst for Kaiser Permanente, blames the supervisors more than Rose.

"It's not Harvey's fault," McCall says. "The system does not support Harvey asking the bigger questions."

The battles between Rose and Agnos' people and between Rose and the three policy analysts were as much about the collision of cultures as they were about substantive disagreements over the role of the budget analyst.

"He used to call me a young punk," the 34-year-old Agostini says.
Make that young, overeducated punk. Most of Rose's critics hail from ivory tower graduate programs, like the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Public Policy. Others, including Yockey, spent time in the big leagues of Democratic Party politics. Agostini, McCall, Yockey and others were steeped in the thinking that government is a tool for social change. The mission is all. Packing heady big-picture concepts and computer software "models" that calculate urban economies, they came to City Hall to shake things up, to make a mark. There they ran into Mr. Old School.

But the idea that Rose is merely following orders doesn't wash. He wields enormous influence with the supervisors, often advising them which areas of government to audit.

"I can't count the number of times I've been sitting next to Harvey in the box [the seating area for department reps at the board meetings] and seen him call over a supervisor and go, 'Psst, hey, why don't you ask for an audit of the such and such,'" says one city bureaucrat who asked not to be named. "If Rose wished, he could move the board toward a more ambitious policy review."

But that would force Rose into the controversial areas that could upset some super-visors and endanger his city contract. Rose resolutely won't suggest major policy shifts, changes in service delivery or funding increases. Nearly every one of his reports to the supervisors ends with this phrase, by now a City Hall cliche: "Adoption of this legislation is a policy matter for the Board of Supervisors."

Given his conservative politics, it's a miracle Rose still works for a Board of Supervisors that has been solidly progressive since 1988. How does he do it?

"I don't get caught up in liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat. My job is to report the facts regardless of where the chips may fall," Rose says, repeating a phrase that's inscribed on a cigar box he keeps on his desk.

City contracts ordinarily go up for bid every few years -- not just to locate the cheapest bidder, but to find the best company for the job. But since Rose beat out 80 some competitors in 1971, the supes have never asked themselves the question of whether Harvey is the best man for the job. Does Rose think the board owes it to itself to put the contract up for bid?

"That's a policy matter for the board," he recites.
Rose defends his ongoing contract saying that he does the best job and charges the lowest rates going -- $67 an hour.

But some board watchers offer a differently calculated explanation for his longevity. By ignoring prickly issues of policy, Rose avoids confrontations with the supervisors' myriad ideologies. His "just the facts" style provides the supes with what they need to sound conversant on legislation.

Instead of focusing Rose on the issues, the supervisors loose him on their foes. By commissioning a Rose audit, supervisors can launch political missiles at their adversaries to generate headlines and votes. In late 1992, Supervisor Terence Hallinan dispatched Rose to study the $15 million in stadium-lease breaks Mayor Jordan wanted to bestow upon the new owners of the Giants. Rose informed the board the arrangement "was one of the worst financial deals in the city." When the super-visors approved it anyway, Hallinan whipped neighborhood groups into mounting a referendum drive that qualified for the ballot. Nervous about such a high-profile fight, the board rescinded the lucrative lease package.

During the Agnos years, Supervisor Tom Hsieh sicced Rose on Agnos' deputy-mayor system, leading to a ballot initiative that ended the layer of bureaucracy.

In 1992, when then-supervisor Bill Maher was out to make his name attacking the Redevelopment Agency, all he had to do was ask for a jab of Rose's number-two pencil. Rose's report on the extravagant agency detonated like a nuclear warhead. At the time, the agency director, Ed Helfeld, criticized Rose for failing to judge the agency in terms of its mission -- alleviating urban blight -- and instead focusing primarily on the top-dollar salaries of administrators.

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