Chandra Wallar has been hired as Santa Barbara’s new chief executive officer, replacing outgoing CEO Michael Brown and becoming the first woman to hold the county’s highest bureaucratic position. “I’m really excited,” she said by phone, during a break from the San Diego County Board of Supervisors meeting. “The board there really seems to have a lot of consistency and purpose.”
Wallar, who starts November 1, comes to the area after 11 years with San Diego County, where she started as the assistant director of Public Works. She has held her current position of deputy chief administrative officer (CAO)and group general manager for the county’s Land Use and Environment Group since 2006. That group includes several county departments, including Public Works, Planning and Land Use, Parks and Rec, Agriculture, and the Air Pollution Control District, and employs more than 1,500 people.
Wallar does have one very significant connection to Santa Barbara: The county’s Planning and Development director, Glenn Russell, who came to town in mid 2009, worked with Wallar when she was in the public works department and when she assumed the assistant CAO position. Russell, who spoke very highly of his newly named boss, said Wallar was “very problem-solving oriented and very service oriented … She’s a strong leader and tough manager who really looks for people to get things done.”
Her role in San Diego had a very significant economic function, overseeing a $400 million budget. And, something she’ll no doubt have to face here in Santa Barbara, Wallar has been dealing with budget cuts and reducing personnel, generally having to do more with less.
She brought in a concept of business process reengineering, looking at every process and every program to streamline productivity and reduce costs, said Russell. Specifically, upon taking on the leadership role as assistant CAO, Wallar commissioned an organizational study of all county positions having to do with the development review process and, as a result, the county made several positive changes in the way business was conducted. And it sounds like she intends to extend that to Santa Barbara as well. “I look forward to working with the Board of Supervisors and staff as we develop innovative ways of streamlining and enhancing services for Santa Barbara County residents, businesses, and visitors,” she said in a statement.
Wallar, who hails from Decatur, Illinois, and received a bachelor of sciences in civil engineering from the University of Illinois, sees a lot of similarities between San Diego and Santa Barbara counties, both of which include coastlines and mountainous regions, and both of which offer many of the same types of services. “At the end of the day,” said 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr, “it helps to have someone who knows California and California laws and land use issues.”
Wallar’s appointment signifies a large shift that has been ongoing since the retirement of Brown was announced in December 2009. Brown will step down on October 31, and as part of a negotiated retirement, will receive a two-year retirement incentive.
Brown has been in the county’s top bureaucratic position for almost 14 years, having been appointed by the Board of Supervisors in October 1996. Widely recognized as a budget and policy expert, Brown was also known for holding information close to his chest. He centralized control of information and, as a result, frequently clashed with Supervisor Janet Wolf, who has pushed for more transparency in county government.
Changes have been underway since the board majority swung with Farr’s election in November 2008. Just months following, Wolf and Farr teamed up to amend an ordinance, a moved that reduced the CEO’s power and gave it back to the supervisors. Some have speculated that the county could therefore be a less attractive place to work, but Wallar was selected out of a group of strong candidates. Farr said Wallar—picked out of four women and four men finalists—shone brightly in her interviews. “We’re very excited and pleased we were able to hire her,” Farr said.
The county has endured a lot of transition in department heads in the last year. The Public Defender, District Attorney (an elected position), Parks and Recreation, Public Health, Housing and Community Development, and Human Resources departments have all lost (or are losing) department heads to retirement or other careers, which means this board majority has been able to shape to an even greater extent the direction of the county in choosing who runs the county’s day-to-day operations.