Supes Say Farewell to County Counsel Mike Ghizzoni

Board and Staff Deliver Standing Ovation and Much Teasing

Mike Ghizzoni | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

Mike Ghizzoni, Santa Barbara’s low-toned and sandpaper-voiced County Counsel, will retire from the job he’s held for the past seven years, and the department he was a part of for 10 years before that, on June 27. He’d spent the previous 24 years as skipper of a Coast Guard cutter, an experience that peppered the remarks on Tuesday as the Board of Supervisors offered official farewells, punctuated with sustained applause and a standing ovation from the board and staff members in the hearing room.

Ghizzoni — who is noted by reporters for either answering his phone immediately or returning a call quickly and with a to-the-point, no-beating-around-the-bush answer — had seen the county through major disasters, like the Tea and Thomas fires, and the Refugio spill, with his usual calm and skill and takes a well-earned retirement: He liked to say, “12 hours is a half day.”

Among the “Ghizzoni-isms” that flowed Tuesday morning came, “Active, Diligence, and Vigilant are names of Coast Guard cutters. There isn’t one called ‘Good Enough,'” from Chief Assistant Counsel Rachel Van Mullem, who will be the new County Counsel. Also, “You fix it, you fly it: Be willing to stand by your advice to the client department, and be willing to personally defend it in court.” And one that provoked much laughter: “It’s not called the Ralph Brown Efficiency in Government Act” (the Brown Act’s complex rules prevent public servants from holding meetings outside the public eye).

Indicative of Ghizzoni’s leadership style, in his turn at the podium, he offered praise to other people — the Clerk of the Board, the county’s chief executive, and the supervisors’ chiefs of staff and assistants, “part of the organization that nobody really sees,” and indicating obliquely the many hours they put in as he said he appreciated the heads-up he’d get late on Fridays and during the weekend, always preferable to being “sandbagged” on a Tuesday, when the hearings are held.

In the County Counsel office, Ghizzoni stated a key step for him and his chief deputies — Van Mullem, Amber Holderness, and Michelle Montez — was that “We did not want to hire ourselves.” To keep regularly succeeding, “and, more importantly, regularly not to fail,” Ghizzoni said, “I think it’s good to have what I think of as professional diversity. Not just the kind of diversity we measure, but a difference of opinions in the office. I think we’re stronger when we wrestle over these things before we bring them to you,” he told the supervisors.

As well as Ghizzoni’s accessibility — Supervisor Das Williams said he didn’t know anyone who called him back while he was leaving a message as often as Ghizzoni — the supervisors commented on his mentorship in the County Counsel office, with Supervisor Steven Lavagnino lowering the curtain a bit on the closed session hearings the board held with their attorneys: “We’d be wanting to move on the next item, but he wouldn’t let us go. He wanted to let us know [the staff attorney] had worked over the weekend or through a holiday and got it done.”

Commenting on an observation Ghizzoni had made, Supervisor Joan Hartmann told him, “It would be easy to be an officer on watch without any friends, but that hasn’t been you. You have such tender care for the county, the board, for us individually, for your staff, it’s really hard to see you go.” What will get them through, she said, “is you have left us such a legacy, with Rachel and your staff, and you always exude tremendous pride in what you’ve built, and that’s what’s going to get us through.”

As well as thanking the outgoing attorney for guiding the county through its many disasters with his sharp legal mind, quick wit, and even keel, Supervisor Steve Lavagnino teased him by saying of their closed sessions, “You sure got a lot done without any reportable action” to laughter from the room. Lavagnino, who spends some of his time as a standup, noted he was “high bidder” for the roast taking place on Friday.

In closing, Ghizzoni admitted his wife, Sally, had wondered what he was going to do with his extra 70 hours a week once he retires, but that he flew to Chicago on Wednesday and came back with a puppy. To which Williams said, “You’ve given me a great deal of reassurance about human nature that even Mike Ghizzoni can make impetuous and irrational decisions if you’re trying to relax by buying a puppy.”

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