UPDATE: Santa Clara County hires new CEO amid community backlash
Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams is pictured in this file photo.

    Santa Clara County officials have confirmed a new county executive after quietly appointing him to the position two weeks ago behind closed doors and without a public process.

    The county publicly announced last Thursday that longtime CEO Jeff Smith—often a controversial figure in local government—is retiring on July 1. But county leaders failed to mention supervisors had apparently unanimously voted to appoint James Williams, the county’s attorney, to replace Smith during a closed session meeting on Oct. 17.

    The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 Tuesday to officially confirm Williams as the new executive. Supervisor Cindy Chavez voted no, and said her decision came after hearing concerns from dozens of disappointed community leaders.

    “This is really one of the most important actions that we will take as a board and we are missing an opportunity to continue to engage the community,” Chavez said.

    Supervisor Susan Ellenberg said Williams is the first person of color in the county’s top role. He is the son of immigrants from India and Iran.

    “His track record of fighting for social justice and an end to all forms of discrimination is abundantly clear,” she said.

    Williams is expected to receive a 10% raise over Smith’s salary—bringing his compensation to $460,373 annually. He’ll also accumulate up to 2,592 hours of vacation time, according to the agreement.

    “I love working with the county because I care so deeply about its mission and its people,” Williams said after the vote. “I’m very excited to be stepping into this role on behalf of the board and the county organization and to serve the broader community in this new way.”

    Lack of transparency

    The appointment has generated fierce backlash from community leaders who urged a public hiring process. Williams, who was appointed county counsel in 2016, is considered a county insider, longtime bureaucrat and ally of Smith. To many, his appointment signifies more of the same leadership in one of the South Bay’s most powerful agencies. He’s worked for the county since 2010, working in several capacities including as a deputy county executive.

    A coalition of more than 30 nonprofits, including SOMOS Mayfair and Sacred Heart Community Service, signed a letter late Monday demanding the community be involved in the hiring process of the next county CEO.

    Silicon Valley Minority Business Consortium CEO Walter Wilson said the county’s decision “robbed” the public of an opportunity to find the best qualified candidate.

    “I’m very disappointed in the board of supervisors on the process that they’ve taken because the community had not had a chance to weigh in on this in any way, shape or form,” Wilson told San José Spotlight. “James Williams is a well respected attorney, but the community has never worked with him.”

    Santa Clara County Assessor Larry Stone told San José Spotlight the process for hiring Williams has been “nontransparent and unorthodox.” Stone, who’s served as assessor since 1994 under four county executives, said he’s never seen the decision to hire such a critical position rushed this way.

    “It’s certainly not an open, transparent or deliberative process by any stretch of the imagination,” Stone said. “It’s such an important decision to hire the chief executive officer of the entire county—23,000 employees, 1.9 million residents, $11.7 billion budget—there should be an open, transparent process to make this decision.”

    Stone suspects the decision was rushed possibly because of the election next week that could shake up two seats on the board of supervisors. Supervisor Mike Wasserman is terming out and Supervisor Cindy Chavez’s seat could open up if she wins the San Jose mayor’s race.

    “If the county is committed to hiring only the best and the brightest, then you have to seek the best and the brightest,” Stone said. “You have to try to find them. This is entirely unorthodox and not consistent with the history of the county.”

    Supervisor Otto Lee addressed the letter from the nonprofits at the meeting, saying the board didn’t make the decision hastily.

    “There should have been more openness about this process,” Lee said. “We should have received public input to make the process more transparent, and we will do better.”

    Bob Nuñez, president of the San Jose/Silicon Valley NAACP, said he appreciated Lee acknowledging the county’s shortcomings.

    “But not asking us to sit down and talk to us about what we see as the needs and the priorities for this person’s position tells us that you don’t care,” Nuñez said.

    Former San Jose Councilmember Johnny Khamis, who’s running for Wasserman’s seat on the board, said the appointment process is more evidence of the county operating in secrecy.

    “There needs to be a better process. This is the most powerful position in the county,” Khamis told San José Spotlight. “The process seemed rushed and not transparent. And Smith isn’t leaving until June, so what’s the hurry?”

    Moving up

    Williams has been a steadfast figure in the current county administration under Smith, serving as a face of authority amid the county’s evolving COVID-19 health orders that were first applauded then criticized for being too stringent. Williams oversees an office with more than 200 employees.

    Smith, 69, has spent 42 years in public service. He took the job as the county’s top administrator in 2009.

    Smith told San José Spotlight last week he’s ready to call it quits after nearly 14 years as the county executive. He also revealed he is battling Parkinsonism.

    The announcement that Smith is retiring in July drew praise from county officials, including his leadership through the COVID-19 pandemic as Santa Clara County became the first in the U.S. to issue shelter-in-place orders and launch widespread testing and vaccinations.

    But Smith’s time as county executive is also marred by controversy and scrutiny.

    The county faced two years of tense negotiations that nearly led to a strike of 400 doctors. The doctors criticized Smith’s leadership as tone deaf and dismissive, complaining about dire working conditions that pushed them to a breaking point. Residents—and some officials—lambasted Smith over the county’s plan to build a costly new jail instead of a mental health facility.

    Williams’ appointment comes just months after the county appointed Greta Hansen—the second highest-ranking official in the county counsel’s office—as the county’s chief operating officer. That means two attorneys would hold the county’s most powerful management positions.

    “Neither of them have any experience managing a huge public agency like Santa Clara County,” Stone said.

    Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.Reporter Jana Kadah contributed to this story.

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