There has been an aura of uncertainty clouding the halls of the County Administration Building this past week, as people — from members of the Board of Supervisors down to frontline staff — continue to wonder if CEO Chandra Wallar is leaving town.
After news leaked out of Orange County last week that she was in serious talks to take over as CEO down there, Wallar informed Santa Barbara boardmembers just minutes before their February 19 meeting that she was indeed being considered for the job.
The O.C. Board of Supervisors was supposed to discuss the CEO appointment during a private closed-session meeting Tuesday at noon. When the board emerged from that meeting, no announcement was made, but an agreement announcement is scheduled for the board’s meeting next Tuesday. The O.C. supervisors did talk in open session — in a testy exchange with leaders of employee groups — about a possible compensation package for the next CEO, though there was no mention of Wallar, or anyone else, by name.Wallar, in an email this Tuesday morning, said she still had no comment on the situation. Many in Santa Barbara consider it basically a done deal and even noted Wallar’s behavior at the February 19 meeting, saying she appeared disengaged from discussions.
Wallar has risen through the ranks quickly. Just three years ago, she was working as a deputy chief administrative officer in San Diego County, overseeing a staff of 1,550 and a budget in excess of $400 million. Now, she could go from overseeing a Santa Barbara bureaucracy of 3,800 employees and a budget of $820 million to a county system with more than 17,000 employees and a $6 billion enterprise. Orange County is the third-most populated county in the state, and the sixth largest in the country. If Wallar does head down south, it will bring an end to a less than three-year stint in the county’s top bureaucratic office. And many are wondering if she left the county better than she found it.
Of course, she arrived in S.B. during one of the most difficult times in county history. In the midst of the recession, Wallar had to immediately go to work in November 2010 on a $72 million budget deficit. That year was followed by a $25 million deficit. The county has shed a few hundred positions in the last few years; the county has also negotiated with employee unions, getting salary and benefit concessions from most, totaling $15 million in onetime savings in 2012-2013. And Wallar had to coordinate budget cuts necessary to keep the county viable but keep reductions from impacting the public as much as possible. “There’s no question she works hard on that,” one department head said.
Plus, Wallar inherited a county government with what was basically a hiring freeze in place, with salary increases few and far between. While former CEO Michael Brown in 2010 had one deputy CEO, three assistant CEOs, and a number of analysts working for him, Wallar has had to get by with only two assistant CEOs, as well as a handful of analysts, in her office.
Morale has been an issue, but given the hard times, as one official put it, “Where is morale good?”
While some department heads and managers get along with her just fine, others are rubbed the wrong way by her management style. Some county leaders say Wallar — who makes $232,000 a year plus benefits — hasn’t been around long enough to understand the uniqueness of the area, and she doesn’t show creativity or executive prowess. Morale has been an issue, but given the hard times, as one official put it, “Where is morale good?”
At the behest of the board, Wallar attempted to get creative to increase efficiencies. She combined the Parks Department with the Housing and Community Development department (HCD) — throwing in a few others, as well — to form the Community Services Department (CSD). She told the board it was going to save money. But while that may or may not be true, it was an odd combination from the get-go, and while CSD director Herman Parker may make a good parks director, he often appears in over his head when it comes to HCD, especially as the department endures a housing scandal in the Lompoc Housing and Community Development Corporation (LHCDC).
In addition to questions surrounding LHCDC, Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services remains a big question mark. Staff is expected to come to the board later this spring with an update on that department.
Parker was one of two significant hires made during Wallar’s time here. The other is assistant CEO Renée Bahl, whom Wallar brought in from San Diego County and who serves as an intermediary between Wallar and department heads. In the last year, three department heads have left — embattled Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health director Ann Detrick was basically forced out, Social Services director Kathy Gallagher left for a job in Contra Costa County, and General Services director Bob Nisbett left for a job in the Bay Area.
Wallar has helped the county prioritize big-ticket items — like getting funding for the jail — and has realized the need to increase tax revenue. She’s given most ideas a shot — fees for parking at beaches, an oil severance tax, increasing the county’s hotel bed tax to levels similar to other area jurisdictions. But all of those proposals have failed to find agreement at the board level.
County staff creatively came up with the hotel incentive program, with the hope that foregoing some tax revenue would encourage Miramar owner Rick Caruso to build the luxury hotel in Montecito. But agreements between the two sides have stalled, with Caruso’s team finding Wallar’s side tough in providing the answers they need to move forward.
Wallar — whose three-year contract with Santa Barbara County was set to expire in October — is responsive to media requests and encourages her department heads to be active in communicating with the press, a stark contrast to her predecessor. Still, control seems to be an issue with people in the CEO’s spot, and she wants to know what is going on. She insists on having her staff inform her when a media request is formed, and each day, her office sends out a report on who contacted personnel in the county, what information was asked for, and how it was handled. She insists department heads not call supervisors by their first names and, at board meetings, give presentations from a table, not the podium.
Among other things, Wallar has reorganized the budget book — set to be released later this spring — into a much more readable, succinct document. She’s lessened the number of board meetings, which some have appreciated and some have not. She’s improved relations with Santa Barbara’s business community, perhaps best shown in a glowing column from Pacific Coast Business Times editor Henry Dubroff. “If she goes, she’ll be badly missed,” Dubroff said, specifically noting what he sees as level-headedness and positive budgetary work.
Whatever happens in the coming weeks remains to be seen. But the common feeling is that, one way or another, Wallar will not be with the county much longer, whether her split happens in a couple of weeks or when her contract expires in October.