John Torell, Santa Barbara County’s outgoing director of Housing and Community Development, is a process improvement guy. As he explained to the San Diego City Council once, you don’t just throw all the parts in the car in a pile, show workers a picture of the car, and tell them to build it. Instead you form a process, like you would in an assembly line, to help manufacture the product.
And that’s been Torell’s take on the various projects he’s undertaken in his career, largely spent in Santa Barbara and San Diego. After roughly 16 years of service to Santa Barbara County, Torell, known among others in the county as one who tells it like it is, will be retiring on Monday. This was his second go-around with the county, as he also served for 15 years in the auditor-controller department. Torell, 66, explained he was retiring because the nine hours of work he did each day tended to get in the way of his free time.
Prior to working in Santa Barbara, Torell was a captain in the Air Force for six years, and worked as a certified public accountant. He also owned a chain of 38 record stores in the Bay Area, Rainbow Records, and put on concerts with well-known promoter Bill Graham. But by profession, Torell was an accountant. Hired by former auditor-controller Christy Johnson as the chief of internal audit in September 1990, Torell worked his way up to assistant auditor controller by 1993. He quickly hit it off with current auditor controller Bob Geis, who started in 1999, and Torell stayed in that position until taking off to work for the City of San Diego in 2005.
Torell was hired by the City of San Diego to turn around the city’s financial situation at a time when it was three years behind on its financial statements. While some San Diego news reports suggest Torell moved back to Santa Barbara before he finished the job, he said he was able to get the city on track toward correcting its problems.
Torell was in San Diego less than two years, and was planning on retiring after his stint there, but County Executive Officer Mike Brown asked him to lead the Housing and Development Department, which in recent years had endured a fair amount of turbulence prior to Torell’s arrival.
Amid allegations of fraud and a lack of regulation in the affordable housing program, Geis issued a scathing auditor’s report on the department during the tenure of former director, Ed Moses. Once again, Torell was called upon to improve a process.
According to Torell, both he and Geis have studied the work of statistician Ed Deming, who states when there is a problem, 85 to 90 percent of the time it comes as a result of the process in place, not the people. And so Torell worked to fix the process by “rearticulating the goals and objectives of the department,” as he put it, looking at the core business processes, improving customer service, and eliminating unnecessary steps. And now he feels he has finished what he’s set out to do. Stressing teamwork, he would tell his department’s employees, “We’re all like spokes in a wheel. No one is more important.
Torell also worked as the secretary for the County Split Commission, a board set up by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to consider splitting Santa Barbara County into two parts. As secretary, he authored the commission’s report. He also helped found the Project Clean Water group, and helped head the countywide recycling public outreach program.
Currently the Housing and Community Development Department has been relatively quiet, since new development is scarce. The department is expecting money to come in from the federal stimulus package which could go toward affordable housing. A new director has not yet been selected. The Board of Supervisors discussed an interim director at a recent closed-session meeting, though the selection has not been announced. But they did have words of thanks for Torell’s service to the county. “I am somewhat saddened at the prospect of the County losing such an exceptional talent,” 5th District Supervisor and Board of Supervisors chair Joe Centeno wrote in a recent letter. “The proficiency by which we function will be appreciably diminished by your absence.”
Brown, in accepting Torell’s letter and decision to retire, said that one of Torell’s greatest contributions to the county was “to recruit and sustain the many fine professionals which have come to the auditor-controller’s office over the years.” His service was innovative and meaningful, Brown said.
As for Torell, feeling he has accomplished what he set out to do, he will retire with the future wide open. He lives in Santa Barbara, and for a bit toyed with the idea of running for public office before eventually deciding against it. For now, he plans to stay in town and take piano lessons to develop his brain and join the YMCA to take care of his body, he said. Beyond that, he isn’t sure what retirement holds for him, but Torell no longer will have the work day to get in the way. “It’s time for me to do all the things I’ve wanted to do,” he said.