The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors meeting chambers. File photo.
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors meeting chambers. File photo.

    The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors had a rare opportunity to right a wrong after twice violating state transparency rules in a closed-door meeting, and they blew it.

    After San José Spotlight this month exposed Brown Act violations linked to a secretive decision to appoint a new county executive and questioned the rush to hire, officials admitted to the blunder within the required 30-day window. Then they rubber-stamped the decision a second time by revoting and reappointing County Counsel James Williams as the next CEO of Santa Clara County to replace retiring executive Jeff Smith.

    The revote did nothing to address the transparency issue and the community’s request to weigh in on the hiring decision. The five supervisors had already made up their minds, ignoring input from a county of almost two million people.

    Our residents deserve better.

    The debacle begs the question, when did all this canoodling start? When did the supervisors really begin discussing Smith’s replacement? It’s hard to imagine during the Oct. 17 closed meeting that a supervisor randomly said, “OK, Jeff is retiring next June. We need to discuss his replacement. How about James Williams?” Then everyone agreed and voted.

    Or did Smith toss out Williams’ name at an earlier date, unbeknownst to anyone outside a small circle, saying, “Here’s the guy I recommend for the job,” and the board discussed and agreed during the closed session to vote on Williams’ appointment?

    That would be quite disconcerting, if true, considering the number of critical issues left in limbo with Smith’s departure. Several immediately rise to the top—Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, mental health, the jail and homelessness.

    In its heyday, Valley Medical Center (VMC) was touted for its staff and care. In 2012 it received a $5 million donation from developer and philanthropist John Sobrato. The money helped equip a 370,000-square-foot building during the facility’s seismic retrofit. Sobrato wouldn’t have done it if he didn’t believe in VMC’s future. I recall being there for the announcement. The mood was downright giddy.

    Now VMC is struggling to keep staff and replace old, outdated equipment. Morale is at a low point as employees and county executives clash over patient care, employee behavior and pay levels.

    Then we have the county’s mental health system, which Supervisor Susan Ellenberg describes as “fundamentally broken.” Ellenberg and Supervisor Otto Lee declared a mental health crisis in January, yet here we are 11 months later with little change. The work on the new psychiatric ward at VMC also languishes due to management dysfunction, costing the county an additional $85 million and upping the $233 million price tag.

    The ongoing new jail saga could’ve been over a decade ago. Back in 2008 the county secured $80 million in state funds, but the rebuild of the antiquated facilities never got off the ground. Over the years, costs have swelled to more than $700 million, and the new jail remains in limbo.

    In addition to these fiascos, the county’s homeless population continues to head in the wrong direction, growing by 3% during the pandemic from 9,706 homeless people in 2019 to 10,028 this year. More people keep landing on the streets than we can help, which goes back to the stalled mental health and housing services.

    There is plenty of blame to go around, but Smith is responsible for administrating county government, overseeing the funds and delegating directives approved by the supervisors. The supervisors, on the other hand, can’t give their county executive carte blanche. Scrutiny is paramount. Directives need to be followed. Projects can’t be endlessly delayed and costs can’t be permitted to skyrocket.

    With Smith’s looming retirement, the supervisors sit at a crossroad. Their next CEO will not be coasting. There will be a significant learning curve.

    Why the board shunned the idea of looking outside county ranks for someone with matching skills, in addition to vetting Williams, is unclear. What we do know is seven months from now, an untested individual will take the helm, with approximately 22,000 employees under his watch and immediate unfinished business. Williams currently oversees about 200 employees as county counsel.

    Let’s hope the supervisors got it right.

    Moryt Milo is San José Spotlight’s editorial advisor. Contact Moryt at  or follow her at @morytmilo on Twitter. Catch up on her monthly editorials here.

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