One month down in her 36-month contract as the new chief executive officer of Santa Barbara County, and already Chandra Wallar appears off to a hot start.
Whether it was the departure of Mike Brown, who had been in the county’s top bureaucratic spot for over a decade, or the arrival of Wallar, or a combination of both, there does seem to be a wave of change in the air.
For one thing, she’s approachable. Wallar has made it clear that she has an open door policy for both her staff and the community, a stark contrast to the prior administration, which held information close to the chest. She’s already met with leaders of several government agencies, unions, and community groups, and expects to meet with more. As opposed to interviews with the media over the phone, in basement conference rooms, or not at all, she’s already hosted multiple Q&As with local news outlets. “People will support a government if they understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it,” she said. “We’re going to need citizen’s input on what people want and need.”
Department head meetings are happening once a week, and pastries are no longer available at them. She expects a lot out of staff and isn’t afraid to say as much. Department heads have called her extremely bright and confident, with an “extraordinary” sense of leadership. She’s open and approachable with a nice demeanor and contagious laugh.
All that, and she doesn’t use paper. “Paper is something I see as a waste,” she explained, noting it’s easier to use a computer search tool than to dig through stacks on her desk. And it’s a simple initiative for people to get behind it, she said, whether because it’s saving the county money, it’s easier, or it’s protecting the environment.
The CEO’s position is one that requires balance in most everything she does, from balancing the concerns of diverse communities to considering policies of the supervisors who represent those different communities. This is especially true in Santa Barbara County, with a board usually split between North and South County. The diversity will be different for Wallar, who has been accustomed to a very conservative, very pro-development San Diego County. “They all thought pretty much the same way,” she said.
The county is facing a potentially devastating $90 million budget gap for the next fiscal year, meaning Wallar is going to have to make some tough leadership decisions with the two dozen or so departments she oversees. As well, 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr has put on next week’s board agenda an item to discuss the potential of a hiring freeze.
Already Wallar is attacking the county’s inefficiencies, mapping out the processes and looking for where there might be a duplication of efforts. She’s grouping departments together—like public safety, for example, composed of the DA’s Office, Sheriff’s Department, and Probation—so they can work together to establish priorities. From there, the groups will bring their priorities to a bigger discussion involving more departments so countywide priorities can be established. She’s also looking at how more positions can be more efficient by working outside the office, saving money and time on space and resources.
And she comes at an interesting time, as talk of sending various program services’ control back down from the state to the cities and counties begins at the state legislative level. “It’s really a double-edged sword,” she said. “The closer the services to the people it serves, the better the service.” It allows the ability to be more flexible and creative, she said. “That said, no city or county has the funds to take those on.” As the state has a reputation of shifting the responsibility to provide services without providing resources to do so, it can be a scary proposition.