The day after County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher announced he would resign from office in six weeks, Helen Robbins-Meyer, the chief administrative officer of the county of San Diego, emailed her 18,000 employees and told them she would not actually be retiring as planned on March 31.
The next week, the Board of Supervisors officially extended her employment another 180 days.
Fletcher’s abrupt collapse as a leading politician in San Diego threw into chaos the effort to replace Robbins-Meyer and provoked a speculation that his delayed departure was meant to ensure he had a say in who would take over for Robbins-Meyer, perhaps the most important decision supervisors will make this year.
But as the calls accelerated for him to resign immediately, there has been a frenzy to assure the public Fletcher would not vote on the key decision. There has been a plethora of promises from everyone but Fletcher himself, who one relative says is in complete isolation and cannot leave office any earlier than he pledged.
Last week, the news leaked that a prominent Santa Clara politician, Supervisor Cindy Chavez, was being recruited for the job. She is touted as popular in Silicon Valley, appreciated by both business groups and labor leaders. But Tuesday, County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer said publicly that neither Chavez nor anyone else would take that job if it needed Fletcher’s vote.
“I personally would not participate if he did attempt to do so because we are moving on,” Lawson-Remer said during a Board of Supervisors meeting where the four present supervisors unanimously supported a resolution both demanding Fletcher resign immediately and that they had no confidence in him.
County Supervisor Nora Vargas, who chairs the board, stayed silent on the point. But U.S. Rep. Scott Peter said she assured him as well.
“I’ve spoken with BOS Chair Vargas and Vice Chair Lawson-Remer who have both assured me that Mr. Fletcher will not have a vote on the new Chief Administrative Officer, nor on any other County business. The CAO choice is critical and maybe the Supervisors’ biggest vote. I’m now confident in the path forward, whether the Board proceeds with selecting a current candidate or changes course,” he wrote.
But Vargas seems to be leaving the door open for the CAO job to be filled without Fletcher. She told NBC San Diego’s Priya Sridhar that the recruitment effort is almost concluded.
“This is a personnel matter we as a board took, have taken, almost a year to go through this process and we’ve been very thorough in that process so the process is almost concluded …we will continue as a board to have the discussion about the CAO search,” Vargas said according to Sridhar.
It has been unclear where Fletcher exactly has been since he announced he would be taking leave to get treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol abuse. But theories circulated that he would come back for the crucial vote, would not resign at all when he did come back or that he was not even in treatment.
His brother-in-law, Marco Gonzalez, finally seemed to get tired of it all.
“Let me be clear: Nathan has no contact with anyone (including family) outside the facility. His intention to resign May 15th was unequivocal, and there’s nothing that will speed up or slow down the timing,” Gonzalez wrote. He is the brother of former Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, Fletcher’s spouse.
Marco Gonzalez also revealed that he was one of the first to advise Fletcher to step down.
“I support Nathan as a human and a brother-in-law, but I can guarantee you I asked him to resign well before any of those piling on now,” he wrote.
Chavez had major support from labor leaders in the Bay Area and a San Jose Mercury News article about her potentially moving to take the San Diego job was filled with encomiums about her service. But the CAO role is not a political leadership post as much as a massive administrative challenge. Robbins-Meyer was the successor to Walt Ekard, who left the job in 2012 after 13 years in the role. He had taken over after a tumultuous period in the 90s when county government was teetering on financial ruin.
Ekard and Robbins-Meyer were known for stable leadership. But Fletcher’s election brought change as he ushered in a more labor-friendly set of priorities and realigned county government to spend more on social services and behavioral health challenges. The county is something of an off-shoot of the state, responsible for delivering everything from food assistance to health care for the poorest residents. But for 20 years, supervisors were hostile to assistance for the poor and, while they routinely supported pension enhancements for employees, they were not the ideal bargaining partners for labor, who wanted the county to scale up its services and raise compensation standards.
Fletcher made major changes in priorities and by the time Vargas and Lawson-Remer joined him on the board. Robbins-Meyer had adapted and worked with him as a partner.
The new CAO represented a chance to further institutionalize the new county posture on social services and labor relations.
Now, all of that along with so much of San Diego public policy is disrupted with no resolution in sight.
I retired from the County in 2020. When Nathan Fletcher initially took office ,our department was called into a meeting by the CAO’s office and told that life would change. For the first time, staff would be responding to Supervisor priorities. Things did change.
I still don’t understand why a local government job needs a statewide recruitment search? Can someone explain to me why this is a best practice? Does it cost more? Because you need to hire a firm who will conduct the statewide search? Is experience with the City of San Diego or County a requirement?
The smartest thing the supervisors could do is to recruit Robbins-Meyer to take Fletcher’s job when her 180 day interim CAO tour ends. She has shown that she knows the county bureaucracy and the issues it deals with better than anyone, and she has shown that she can remain effective and nonpartisan at the same time. She is probably the only person at least three of the four remaining supervisors could all vote for. That is, if she were willing to take on the role of supervisor when her CAO tour of duty comes to a end.
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