A couple of years ago, officials in Riverside County courted the county of San Diego’s chief administrative officer, Walt Ekard, hoping to lure him to that, um, oasis. 

At about the same time, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders was looking for a new chief operating officer and he, by some accounts, thought long and hard about Ekard.

But Ekard stayed at the county, and he kindly took the time to participate in my series asking local leaders to look forward to 2010.

Here were his responses on a few questions I had for him specifically, along with those I’ve given to everyone. (For an intro to what I’m doing, click here and here are the first two pieces).

I’ve been surprised so far by how many people mentioned the county’s General Plan update as one of the main issues they’re going to be watching in 2010. Add to it the county’s shaky revenue outlook, at least one potentially bitter county supervisor contest and the push to limit supervisors’ terms and you have an interesting year in the works for the county.

Ekard has been infrequently blasting out his own sort of cheerful columns called “Bureaucrats Are Humans Too,” singing praises for people he says are too often treated poorly by critics and the media. It’s made him into a pretty good writer, actually. So I gave him the floor:

You flirted with going to another county this year, how long can we plan on keeping you at the helm of the county?

Actually, I, like other leaders of large governments, am approached from time to time about open executive positions in other jurisdictions. (You’d be surprised at the relatively small pool of individuals with the experience and willingness to lead local governments these days).

But San Diego is my home, I was born here and want to stay here. As far as my future as CAO, I think that depends on a variety of factors most importantly the extent to which the Board of Supervisors is satisfied with my performance.

Secondarily, I would also not want to overstay my welcome. When I don’t believe I can be fully committed to the continuous improvement of County government, it will be time to leave. I’ll know before anyone else when that day comes.

There’s a push to impose term limits on county supervisors. What do you think about this?

For many reasons, I believe term limits are foolish and almost always lead to poor government performance. One only need look at the disastrous consequences of term limits on state government to know what I mean. But beyond that, I believe the voters should make the decision about who they want to represent them.

In the case of the Board of Supervisors, there is one really good reason why they keep getting re-elected … they’ve done a good job! (I know, I know, I work for them … but hear me out!) The county has unquestionably been successful in operating in a disciplined and efficient fashion for well over a decade. And though the reasons for that are many, it all starts at the top. Whether one likes or dislikes the individual personalities that comprise this board, they have proven to be a disciplined decision-making body. Does the county make mistakes? Of course … many mistakes are made each day … just like every large organization, public or private.

But one need only look at the county’s credit rating — the highest possible — to understand that something is being done right at the County Administration Center. Why limit the voters ability to keep a good thing going if they choose to?

As a management technique, you once told me that you keep a list of the 10 things that worry you most so that you can make sure you’re on top of them. What’s at the top of that list now?

The economy and its impact on our ability to provide the level of service the taxpayers want and expect. Of particular concern to me is our continuing ability to provide public safety services and to sustain an acceptable safety net for those who need us most in our community.

Question: Would it be better to be a city manager overseen by an elected City Council or a chief operating officer overseen by an elected mayor?

I only have experience with the former since I report to and am overseen by a five-member elected body now and it has worked well as far as I’m concerned. But I also suspect being responsible to a singular individual, (the mayor), can also be a successful model.

In my judgment, it’s less about the government structure and more about the quality of the people involved. A poor manager and poor board or council can screw up the best structured government while a great manager reporting to a great mayor can certainly be successful in spite of the way things are organized. What is critical is having someone who is clearly responsible for the day to day operation of the government and for implementing the policy of whatever elected body or individual is in charge. I have long believed the lack of such a position is a fundamental reason why the state of California is in such a disastrous situation.

What decision will you be paying attention to the most in the coming year and who will be making it?

The state budget decisions that will be made by the governor and state Legislature. Counties are already reeling from the triple threat of the local economy, increasing retirement costs and last year’s significant state cuts. Further cuts by the State will lead to additional reductions in services to local taxpayers and a further reduction to the County workforce. Unfortunately, I have little confidence that the things that should be done in Sacramento will in fact be done — so I’m not expecting to sleep very well this year!

Who is the most promising leader in San Diego these days and what do you think he or she might do in 2010?

Scott! I work in the political world. Do you really think I’m going to answer this question???????????? 🙂

What else are you looking forward to in 2010?

Partial list below….in no particular order.

1) Keeping fiscal discipline and the maintenance of appropriate reserves during the continued economic downturn.

2) Development and execution of a new health strategy in San Diego County.

3) Proceeding with the replacement of the Las Colinas Women’s Detention facility.

4) Maintaining progress toward finalizing the General Plan Update. (I know, it’s a tad overdue!)

5) Management of escalating retirement costs.

6) Continuing management of the swine flu pandemic.

7) Maintaining preparedness for any other disaster. (God forbid!)

8) Maintaining an adequate safety net in the face of potentially significant additional state cuts.

9) Completion of current capital projects on time and on budget.

10) Fair and balanced reporting by all media as it relates to local government and particularly government workers! (Give us our due. We do a lot of good work and the people of San Diego have a right to know about the good as well as the bad!) (Catharsis complete)

Here was Ekard’s ranking of the major projects I listed:

Two caveats here.

I am answering this question as a citizen, (who does not live in the city of San Diego) and not as a local government leader since most of these projects are outside my scope of authority and I am not privy to much of the “insider” information that I would expect to have if I were directly involved. Based on what I know about these projects, I rank them according to personal priority and what seems necessary and doable in today’s environment.

As a matter of good business, and for purposes of answering this question as a government executive, I assume that all deferred maintenance and needed infrastructure improvements are either completed or planned for before resources are expended on new capital projects.

1) An Expanded Convention Center | Comment: Hate to lose all those loony comic characters running around the gas lamp each year.

2) A New Wastewater System | Comment: Water supply = quality of life.

3) A different Airport Infrastructure | Comment: This would be most people’s first choice if we could get our act together as a region.

4) Expanded Mass Transit | Comment: Good idea … awfully tough sell to the driving public.

5) A New City Hall | Comment: Combine with Number six. An idea whose time has come!

6) A New Performing Arts Center | Comment: See number 5

7) A New Stadium | Comment: Would hate to lose the Chargers

8) A New Central Library | Comment: Build a branch library downtown and call it a day.

* I would add to this list the development of the North Embarcadero and would put it near the top of visionary projects for the future.

Rank these local civic problems by how much they will worry you in the coming year — most worrisome at the top:

• Municipal Budget Shortfalls 1

• School Budget Shortfalls

• Infrastructure Decay

• Library Cutbacks or Eliminations

• Water Reliability Concerns

• Parks and Recreation Cutbacks

• Mass Transit Shortcomings

• Homelessness

• Drug Use

• Water Pollution

• Local Ecological Damage

• Fire Protection Shortfalls

• Other (please specify) Continuing loss of public trust in government

• Other (please specify) Impact of the economy on the safety net

Explanation: I assume “municipal budget shortfalls” includes local government in general and hence the County. As such, I am singularly concerned about revenue shortfalls that will create difficulty in providing effective levels of any or all of the other services you have listed. Priority service provision is ultimately determined by elected officials.

My job is to spend resources as directed by policy makers. If we have budget shortfalls, all services are at risk.


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