Top Santa Clara County official plans to step down
Santa Clara County Executive Jeff Smith (left) at an April press conference. Photo by Natalie Hanson.

    After more than a decade leading Santa Clara County, longtime Executive Jeff Smith is leaving the top post next year.

    “Having worked here for 13 years so far and maybe close to 14 years when I retire in July, it seemed like a reasonable time,” the County CEO told San José Spotlight. “We have a great team that will be able to obviously to carry on without me. Time to retire.”

    Smith, 69, added he’s battled with Parkinsonism for five years.

    “It’s not really interfering with my job, but it reemphasizes that I need to spend time with my family,” he said.

    Smith has led Santa Clara County as its executive officer through some of its most challenging times, including the COVID-19 pandemic, a mental health and substance use crisis, calls for jail reform and demands for changes at the county hospital system. He’s the longest-serving executive in Santa Clara County since the 1970s, according to the county.

    Over the course of Smith’s career in the South Bay, Santa Clara County’s budget grew from $4.3 billion in 2009 to $11.5 billion this year. The workforce also jumped from 14,000 workers in 2009 to 23,000 this year under his leadership. Among his proudest achievements are his efforts to save O’Connor and St. Louise Regional hospitals by acquiring them when the hospitals declared bankruptcy in 2018, Smith said. He also guided the county through the pandemic with widespread testing and vaccinations and made strides in diversifying the county’s workforce.

    “I’m grateful to Dr. Smith for his leadership and the unique expertise he developed over his long career in public service and health care specifically,” Supervisor Susan Ellenberg said in a statement. “Public service is obviously a deep calling for Dr. Smith and his work for our community has been tremendous.”

    But Smith’s tenure is not without controversies. The county might see more than 400 of its doctors, including primary care physicians, go on strike this November over stalled negotiations. The doctors criticize Smith’s leadership as tone deaf and dismissive, driving many to prepare to leave their jobs or pushing them to a breaking point.

    Residents—and some officials—are also frustrated with Smith over the county’s plan to build a new jail. After years of pushing for a new jail, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors hit the brakes on construction in October 2020. Elected officials explored the idea of building a mental health treatment facility, but backed off this idea in early 2021 after Smith raised concerns about how long it would take to build, and the county’s obligation under a federal court order to improve conditions in the existing jails.

    The county spent months last year soliciting community feedback, where the majority wanted to see an alternative to a new jail. But the county moved ahead with plans for a $747 million maximum security facility anyway earlier this year. For now, the county agreed to gather more community input before moving forward with the plans, but some elected officials warned the project will be delayed yet again if the county doesn’t make a decision soon.

    Smith, who holds medical and law degrees, started serving the public as a family practice doctor in Contra Costa County, where he later became the family practice residency director and chief medical officer. Smith also served as a Contra Costa County supervisor and a Martinez councilmember before becoming Santa Clara County’s executive and CEO in 2009.

    Smith said the biggest challenge facing the county is an upcoming economic downturn that could hurt services for the most vulnerable populations.

    “The most important thing is that we probably need to have somebody who comes from the inside, who understands the complexity of the organization,” Smith said of his successor. “We don’t really have time to waste.”

    It’s not clear when the county will start recruiting for Smith’s replacement. Smith said it’s up to the board of supervisors, who hire the CEO for this position.

    Elected officials commended Smith for his yearslong service.

    “I have particularly appreciated his understanding of the fact that our organization has a duty to serve the entire county,” Supervisor Joe Simitian said in a statement. “And I wish him well. It has been a tough, tough time to lead an organization of this size and complexity.”

    Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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