While middle schoolers read books by Judy Blume, James Williams read federal budgets. Decades later he’s reading multibillion dollar budgets for Santa Clara County as he takes the helm as its new CEO and executive director.
Williams steps into the role this month after serving as county counsel and former deputy county executive for a decade.
“He is somebody that already, to a large extent, knows this job,” Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors President Susan Ellenberg told San José Spotlight. “There will be no learning curve.”
But Williams, 39, faces a slew of thorny issues when he starts his job on July 10. His bosses, the county supervisors, will be looking to him to analyze and advise on the decadeslong need for a new county jail, a looming budget deficit, a shortage of mental health services and ongoing staff vacancies throughout the county.
Williams replaces CEO Jeff Smith, who was a controversial figure in his 13 years as the county’s top leader. Among others, he drew the ire of Santa Clara Valley Medical Center doctors, nurses and staff, who blamed him for toxic work conditions and demanded better pay and benefits.
A union representing janitors, health care workers and social workers has expressed frustration with understaffing and vacant positions, and has threatened to strike.
Williams is the first person of color in the county’s top role. He is the son of immigrants from India and Iran, and was raised by a single mother. He said he understands the issues facing the county’s communities of color and marginalized populations.
“Family experience matters,” Williams told San José Spotlight. “Especially when you’re talking about how the mission of this county is to take care of families in our community.”
One of his challenges will be tackling a broken health care system and repairing relationships with medical providers. San José Spotlight’s reporting last year revealed broken machines, long wait times and fed-up doctors at VMC, a county-funded hospital that serves mostly low-income people of color.
A 2022 survey found about 69% of doctors working for VMC are looking to leave within the next three years.
Allan Kamara, vice president of Registered Nurses Professional Association (RNPA), said he hopes Williams will prioritize filling hundreds of vacancies to help overburdened nurses.
“Having a new executive coming in, you have to have an open and positive mind,” Kamara told San José Spotlight. “We want to give him the opportunity so he can come and work with us and he has promised that he will do that.”
The Board of Supervisors in June approved the county’s $11.3 billion budget, closing a $120 million deficit. The budget pegged more funding for behavioral health services, housing, public safety and additional support for children and families. But it also eliminated 600 vacant positions while shifting $218.6 million to county reserves and pausing several county facility improvements and demolition projects.
“I would never pretend like there aren’t real world impacts from facing budget cuts,” Williams said. “There are also some opportunities at the same time to rethink how we do things, and to find some opportunities to maximize our ability to draw in revenue.”
The contentious issue of building a new jail is also expected to come before supervisors again. The supervisors approved a new jail complex in 2020 with a price tag of $390 million, but delays caused the price to soar to more than $689 million last year. Advocates have urged the county to scrap the jail project and build a mental health facility instead.
“We don’t get the luxury of one or the other,” Williams said. “The challenge is finding the resources to do them both and do them well. But we have to do both.”
The new county executive will also oversee construction of a new $233 million 77-bed psychiatric facility at VMC to serve children, teens and adults.
Williams’ appointment to the critical position came with controversy.
The Board of Supervisors violated the Brown Act when it secretly voted to appoint Williams last November without a public announcement. Two weeks later, amid legal threats the board revoted on the issue and confirmed Williams into the role.
Williams said he’s ready to take over the county executive role and fulfill the county’s mission to be a safety net provider for the region’s most vulnerable residents.
“The job of the county executive is to help translate (the Board of Supervisors) policy priorities into operations and to effectuate them, to help bring them to life,” Williams said. “I’m excited about working with this board and helping to bring those things to life.”