In an unexpected yet not entirely surprising move, Santa Barbara County Executive Officer Michael Brown-the county’s top bureaucrat- will be retiring next year. Rumors that Brown might retire started swirling on November 16, one business day after eligible county employees were to notify the Human Resources Department if they intended to participate in a countywide program offering an incentive for employees to retire early.
Under the deal, which is intended to save the county money, employees receive two years additional service credit toward their pensions, and their positions must stay open for at least six months following the retirement. Though official numbers hadn’t been tabulated, he is expected to be among several dozen employees who took the offer. Employees taking the “golden handshake” have to retire by Jan. 24, 2010. Brown will be retiring on Oct. 31, 2010, because he has a different contract with the board.
In a statement from the county sent Wednesday, which coincides with Brown’s 13th anniversary at the helm, 5th District Supervisor Joe Centeno said the board reworked the contract with Brown to keep him around to help with budget issues. “Mr. Brown will stay at the helm until October 31, 2010 and we are depending on him to lead us out of this financial quagmire.” Given his different contract, the position most likely will not stay open for the six months, but filled quickly.
Despite the rumors, Brown was coy about his intentions, even through Tuesday morning. He would only say that he was considering retirement, but hadn’t had a chance to discuss his situation with the Board of Supervisors. He was vague when asked if a story about him retiring would be incorrect, saying it “might be wrong.” Brown met with the board during a closed session hearing beginning at noon Tuesday, where the deal was presumably finalized.
On November 17, Brown didn’t return a phone call requesting comment but, through a brief email response from county spokesperson William Boyer, said only, “No decision at this time.” A public records request from The Independent that same day asking for a list of names, positions, and salaries of all county employees who indicated their intention to participate in the county’s “golden handshake” program still has not been answered. Neither 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal nor 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf would say Tuesday morning whether Brown had indicated to the board his intentions, citing personnel considerations.
After the announcement, Wolf said she wished Brown the “best of luck in his much deserved retirement” and that she was “looking forward to beginning the process” of finding a new CEO.
The announcement is certainly unexpected, but not shocking, as the writing for a move like this has been on the wall for some time. The rumors that Brown could be retiring didn’t come as a surprise to several county employees who were recently contacted.
The supervisors have been in the midst of a several weeks-long performance review of Brown, a review that included feedback from most department heads. Their feedback-on anything from his relations with subordinates, to the board, to the community-combined with that of the supervisors, amounted to a response that showed he was mediocre in most areas. It is not known how much Brown knew of the results of the evaluation, which was more interactive with department heads compared to past assessments.
Through this incentive program, Brown is getting a better pension deal than if he were to ride out the rest of his former contract, which was set to expire in May 2011. Though he would miss out on more than $150,000 in salary, Brown-whose final salary this year will be $251,697- would get about $97,905 a year in pension pay, roughly $7,905 more than if he stayed until the end of his contract through 2011.
The contract, which was formed by the previous board and made it much more expensive to get rid of Brown without cause, came in the midst of a lawsuit by former public defender Jim Egar, who alleged Brown screamed in his face, spit at him, and threatened to “slaughter” him in front of the supervisors. That lawsuit, however, was later dropped. Egar was one of 10 department heads to leave during Brown’s tenure. Current supervisors Wolf and Carbajal both voted against the contract extension.
Brown, no stranger to controversy, is now in the midst of more recent legal issues as well. On October 27, former county employee Shawn Terris filed a lawsuit against Brown and the county, alleging among other things discrimination and wrongful termination. She has claimed Brown has had it out for her for several years.
He also is now facing an allegation from consistent public commenter and board agitator Kate Smith that he hit her during a board meeting in April. Video from the meeting does show Smith coming up behind Brown as he sits at a staff table, and he does put his hand up, though it is unclear from the video what exactly happened. That case is scheduled in Santa Barbara Small Claims Court early next year.
Brown, said to value loyalty most in those below him, also recently lost two of his closest allies. One, John Baker, was an assistant CEO also in charge of the controversial Planning and Development Department. As part of an ordinance adjustment that reduced Brown’s control over county departments, the supervisors also indicated in their February vote that they wanted to be in greater control of hiring and firing of department heads, beginning with Baker’s replacement. They were, this summer hiring Glenn Russell from San Diego County.
The other employee, John McInnes, once considered one of Brown’s closest remaining allies, recently left to take over as the general manager of the Goleta Water District. McInnes was an assistant CEO to Brown, previously in charge of the Housing and Community Development department.