At one point in her life, Mona Miyasato thought about becoming a journalist. But after obtaining a graduate degree from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, Miyasato decided she would like to “be in the game rather than writing about it.”
Now, as Santa Barbara County executive officer, Miyasato has certainly been in the game. Early in her tenure, six college students were killed in the Isla Vista mass murder. Since then, there have been multiple wildfires, the 2015 Refugio Oil Spill, and, most recently, the biggest wildfire in the state record, followed by the deadly 1/9 Debris Flow.
As the county’s top administrator — earning $250,000 in annual salary— Miyasato plays a significant role in steering the enormous vessel of county government that’s responsible for a lot of things, not the least of which include Flood Control and Public Works — two departments that the Montecito disaster has elevated more prominently in the public eye. The Montecito recovery effort is expected to cost the county up to $9 million. This “local share” will come out of county reserves, she said. This hit is on top of the roughly $29 million deficit, largely due to escalating employee pension costs.
Born in the San Gabriel Valley, Miyasato grew up with a father who valued public service and instilled in her and her siblings a sense of civic responsibility, she said. After the Korean War, he went to college on the GI Bill and later became a manager in a chemical corporation. Her mom was an executive secretary. Before Harvard, Miyasato studied economics and political science at UC Berkeley. Operating primarily behind the scenes, she has an uncanny ability to earn praise from all parts of the political spectrum. “She is quietly effective,” said Bob Geis, the county’s former auditor-controller, who worked with many CEOs in his 37-year career.
Miyasato recalled the night of January 9 storm as “unimaginable,” she said. “We were all prepared. It was still really a shock.” She said she is “100 percent convinced we as a county did everything we could have done at the time.” County officials prepared for the storm that was predicted, not the storm that occurred, she said. With more storms expected, she added, “We are always learning from past experiences.” She called Flood Control Director Tom Fayram her “hero.”
Miyasato previously held similar government posts — as the second in command in Marin County and as the deputy city manager in Santa Monica. When she arrived in Santa Barbara, she brought a human component to the management role. Several days into the Thomas Fire, she got choked up briefly during a Board of Supervisors hearing while thanking county staff for their unwavering dedication to public service.
The job of County Executive Officer falls into an unusual role that mixes the mundaneness of bureaucracy with nuanced local politics. She has five bosses — the county supervisors — each with their own distinct political viewpoints and personalities. She has to cater to the board majority, an awkward role at times. For example, in June 2015, a 3-2 board vote sent her to Washington, D.C., to speak in opposition to a Chumash-sponsored bill; at the same time, Supervisor Steve Lavagnino was in D.C. to voice the opposing position.
Congressmember Salud Carbajal, who spent 24 years in county government, said Miyasato is one of the most talented public executives he has ever met. Conservative watchdog Andy Caldwell, who has berated the county supervisors for 25 years, said in an email that he believed she gave “EVERYTHING she had during the fire and the flood. And that is all we can ask for.” But ultimately he said the three supervisors in the majority hamstring every CEO. “I would love to see what Mona would put on her list for re-visioning if she were free to speak and act as the County Executive Officer” as opposed to “continuously be counting to three each and every Tuesday.”
Still struggling with the aftermath of Santa Barbara County’s worst natural disaster, Miyasato is reminded of a quote from the movie The Martian: “You solve one problem, and you solve the next one.”