What lesson or lessons have you carried with you over the years?
Probably the two things that most influenced my life were the life and death of John F. Kennedy and the war in Vietnam. Those were the two seminal events for my generation early in our lives. Kennedy inspired a desire for public service and with it the belief the government could positively impact people’s lives. During the Vietnam War I saw the destructive effect of government policies that were ill conceived.
What keeps you motivated?
I ask myself that question sometimes at age 65 when I’m up at 5 o’clock in the morning working out and getting ready for work! Basically, I remember why I’m in public service: to give something back to the community, to help people who are less fortunate than I, and to leave the world a little better than I found it. I try to imagine what the lives of my granddaughters, ages 8 to 13, will be like in 30 years. I try to do things that I hope will make their lives and the lives of all children a little easier and more meaningful in the future.
Who or what inspires you?
I’m inspired every day by the men and women who work for this County. They always go above and beyond. This is true not only for those who work in the “citizen-facing” services but of those who work behind the scenes in a support role.
Public service is a noble calling and it helps to make the lives of everyone in the community better.
What’s the biggest challenge the organization faces in fulfilling the County’s mission?
Financial sustainability and re-engaging the public in civic affairs. During the past three decades the public’s confidence in government at all levels has declined as cynicism increased. There are many reasons for this.
But the most significant factor in my judgment is the disconnect between taxes and services. We have spent 30 years reducing tax rates, which is a popular thing to do – who isn’t in favor of lower taxes?
However, we separated decisions on taxes from decisions on spending. It turns out that cutting spending is a much more complicated thing to do. It is much more difficult to achieve consensus on what should be cut: what’s important to you may not be as important to me.
During this time the public has come to view government services through the lens of consumerism. Thus the public is more concerned with questions like, “Are we getting our money’s worth?” But it has also led to changing perceptions of the value of government services like, “I should only pay for services that I use or deem a benefit to me.” This has increasingly blurred the distinctions between our roles as consumers and citizens.
As a consumer I often have vast choices in the products and services I buy. As a citizen I have certain rights and obligations that I have to the community. The later point is not as widely perceived today as it once was.
Also during this period the middle class has not faired very well. In large part I believe this is due to the declining influence of labor unions and the so-called global economy. When companies were owned by “local people,” they had a stake in their communities. They had an interest in working with their employees and the community to ensure everyone prospered.
Today, the attitude seems to be, “If we can do it cheaper somewhere else then we’ll off-shore jobs” – irrespective of the impact it may have on local communities. This led to fewer jobs with pay and benefits that are sufficient to raise a family and get ahead. We seem to be in a “race to the bottom” in terms of pay and benefits.
Thus people work harder and put in longer hours just to keep up. Some people can’t make it and fall back on various forms of government assistance – health care, for example – that might previously have been the responsibility of an employer. People have less time to be engaged in civic affairs creating a vacuum that has been filled by special interests. The rules of engagement are changed to favor these special interests in the form of tax breaks and other special considerations.
Is it any wonder that the average citizen has become cynical and believes government doesn’t address the issues that are most important to them?
Describe your vision for San Mateo County.
My vision is that San Mateo County provides cost-effective quality services that make the lives or our citizens better, that employees are proud of the work they do and the organization they work for, and that we are good stewards of all the resources entrusted to us. In order to accomplish this, we must remain a financially viable organization that is relevant to the needs of the community.
I believe we can do this by reexamining the work we do and how we do it. We can do this by involving the public in new and meaningful ways in the governance of the county. And we can do this as employees of the county by reaffirming our commitment to public service.
What motivated you to want to return as County Manager?
I was honored to be asked by the Board to return as County Manager. This County has been very good to me, and the 20 years I previously had worked for the County were some of the best in my life. If I can do something to help the County now, I’m pleased to be able to do it.
You have often spoken with passion about prevention services. How do you balance that long-term goal with the reality that our budgets are set for today’s problems, not tomorrow’s potential success stories?
Of course that’s the reality that any organization with finite resources faces – we respond to today’s challenges. But as a government we have a responsibility to not just meet today’s needs but also to plan for the future. We know that criminal justice and health care costs can’t continue to grow as they have in the past – it isn’t sustainable.
We also know a lot about the things we can do to reduce caseloads in these areas in the future. We know what works – kids that are healthy and have a stable home life do better in school, kids that stay in school do better in life and these adults become responsive, contributing members of society.
If we can just change trajectories in these two areas we can change the paradigm of government and its attendant costs for generations to come.
Tell us something about yourself that might surprise us or that something most people don’t know about you.
After 50 or 60 hours a week working with concepts and ideas I love to work with my hands. Among other things in my spare time I build furniture and cook soup!
Tell us about a person — a county employee or a client — that truly made you believe that what we do here is important.
I remember a young woman who was graduating from high school and applying for a scholarship. I was on the selection committee. She had a horrific life – in and out of foster care, parents in prison and health care issues. We awarded her the scholarship.
Afterward, during the reception for the scholarship winners she came up to me and thanked me for the Healthy Kids insurance program. She told me that once enrolled she was able to get the care she needed. Her grades improved in school (she graduated with a 4.0 GPA). She went on to attend Yale.
I lost track of her after that conversation. But whenever I’m feeling discouraged, I think back to that conversation and I’m reminded that what we do makes a difference in people’s lives.