Suggestions sometimes bring savings

SACRAMENTO -- It's not blowing up the boxes of state government, but Gov. Schwarzenegger's officials say their online Waste Watchers suggestion box has prompted changes from shutting off lights in a vacant office to selling hundreds of used state vehicles.

Schwarzenegger launched Waste Watchers in June at the urging of a Bee reader during an online chat with the governor. The site has since elicited 5,235 comments, according to the governor's constituent affairs office.

"Anyone who wants to be a good manager would welcome these suggestions," said Chief Deputy Cabinet Secretary Susan Peppler, who oversees the operation.

The governor's office has followed up on less than a third of the suggestions, largely because it deemed many of them too vague to investigate. The books are open on how much money has been saved.

The Waste Watchers site is not the first of its kind. The Bureau of State Audits and its predecessor office have fielded complaints of improper governmental activities since 1980. The BSA's whistle-blower unit received 4,963 complaints in 2009 and has a staff of 13 that includes fraud investigators and analysts.

Based on examples provided by the governor's office, Waste Watchers has been most effective when state workers identify specific instances of waste. In one case, a tip prompted the Department of Transportation to order a maintenance crew in the Sierra to return 23 televisions worth $3,850.

Many other submissions involve Californians venting about Schwarzenegger or lawmakers. The governor's constituent affairs office classified 64 percent as general suggestions and 6 percent as comments about the Legislature. Schwarzenegger officials say they cannot act on those because they do not identify specific waste or because the governor has no control over legislative spending.

It may be the nature of such efforts: The auditor's office was unable to investigate 82 percent of its Whistleblower Hotline complaints in 2009.

The governor's constituent affairs office says it acted on 1,450 comments, either by contacting the appropriate agencies or departments or by referring tips to BSA and Department of Finance auditors.

Peppler said her staff sends relevant complaints to the department in question and asks for a response within 30 days. She said managers often change policies on their own. If a department disagrees with a complaint, it must provide an explanation.

One complaint noted, "Every morning during daylight the outside lights (building & parking lot) are on at thr (sic) DMV offices in Bellflower. They should be off just after 6:00am when the sun is rising."

That led the Bellflower DMV to adjust its light timer and check for similar problems at other DMV offices, saving $2,920 a year, according to constituent affairs.

Other comments are not so productive.

"With the state of California in financial trouble, it seems more than rediculous (sic) to bear the expense of changing the clocks twice a year!" someone noted. "By executive order, Governor Swartzennager (sic) could easily eliminate this costly misteak (sic)."

The constituent affairs office says Waste Watchers has saved nearly $25.6 million, although it attributes $24.1 million of that to a projected reduction in the state's vehicle fleet, a figure the administration is working to verify.