MODESTO -- There was nothing sexy about item B-5 on Tuesday's agenda.
Who would argue against selling old, nearly worthless Stanislaus County vehicles at auction? The salvage money surely would do some good elsewhere.
So nondescript was the item that administrators listed it on supervisors' consent agenda, meaning there would be no discussion just a rubber-stamp vote along with other noncontroversial, drab business.
Bill O'Brien, this year's chairman of the Board of Supervisors, changed that expectation in the latest of what is becoming a string of nonconforming votes.
Three weeks ago, O'Brien noted, a supervisorial majority agreed to buy two new cars for the public guardian's office, at a total cost of $50,000. Could the county have saved money, O'Brien wondered, by opting instead to repair one or two of the 40 older vehicles to be sold?
O'Brien said he visited the fleet heading for auction and agreed that "a lot need to go, yes." But as he was leaving, he peered into another county lot and saw row after row of white county cars, many covered in dust, he said, as if they had not been driven in a long time.
"I understand what you're saying, but I have faith in our department heads making decisions," Supervisor Dick Monteith countered. "They know what they need. I don't want us to get into micromanaging."
Three weeks ago, O'Brien stood alone with his "no" vote. This time, Supervisor Vito Chiesa joined him, but they were outvoted by Supervisors Jim DeMartini, Terry Withrow and Monteith.
After the meeting, O'Brien further explained his logic. A department head might face a decision between spending, say, $1,000 of his or her budget to repair an older car or persuading administrators to spring for a $25,000 replacement. Although the second option is much more costly draining the county's general fund it has less effect on the department's individual budget.
"Is that the best public policy?" O'Brien said.
He asked to review the county's fleet management policy and expects staff to comply, despite losing Tuesday's vote.
"When you see cars not being utilized and we're buying new ones, that doesn't make sense," O'Brien said. "We need to make sure it's the most effective way of doing business. If that's micromanaging, you better believe I will stand up for the taxpayer and do that."
Split votes on this board, composed of five white,
middle-age Republican men, have been relatively rare. But O'Brien has left the pack more and more in recent weeks.
In September, he cast the only vote against the county's final budget, saying his stomach was in knots over spending so much money with little certainty of covering costs. Also last month, O'Brien voted against hiring a new planning director. Last week, he publicly scolded Area Agency on Aging staff members for their role in seniors missing more than 18,000 meals in the spring.
In addition to the fleet flap Tuesday, O'Brien voted against a proposed 2013 calendar of board meeting dates, as he routinely has for several years. He noted 16 weeks with no scheduled meetings, perhaps forcing too many items onto other lengthy agendas.
Withrow, a certified public accountant, said he appreciates the consideration when colleagues show flexibility. For example, April's calendar has no meetings during two weeks before the April 15 end of tax season; two weeks in October also are dark during nut harvest, when Chiesa and DeMartini, both growers, are busiest.
O'Brien says he's not going rogue.
"I'm just seeing stuff standing out that needs comment," he said after Tuesday's meeting, "and I'm not bashful."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2390.