County’s top executive steps aside

– Santa Clara County officials will have to navigate this
spring’s budgetary storm without the leadership of their top
SAN JOSE – Santa Clara County officials will have to navigate this spring’s budgetary storm without the leadership of their top executive.

After spending eight years at the helm of the county’s government, County Executive Richard Wittenberg announced this week that he will retire from his post effective March 31.

The 62-year-old government veteran told county supervisors the decision was a difficult one, but he wants to leave wearing 70-hour work weeks behind and spend more time with his family. Wittenberg and his wife Joyce have a new grandchild and are expecting two more in coming months.

“It’s the right time for me,” said Wittenberg, who jokingly referred to himself as “an old codger.” “I’ve been at this 37 years.”

As the county’s top staffer, Wittenberg oversees a $3.8 billion annual budget and day-to-day operations of some 16,000 workers in a wide range of fields. The county is responsible for on-the-ground management of many social programs for the less fortunate – including welfare, public and mental health – as well as a diverse suite of other services ranging from animal control to general aviation to law enforcement. He earned a $244,000 salary.

Wittenberg – who was also Ventura County’s top official for 17 years before coming here – is the senior ranking county manager in California by several years in a position where average tenures can last less than three. District 1 Supervisor Don Gage said his experience and expertise helped Santa Clara become one of California’s more progressive counties.

“He’s the finest administrator in the state,” Gage said. “It will be extremely difficult to find someone to fill his shoes.”

During Wittenberg’s tenure, Santa Clara County earned the highest bond ratings issued to any county in the state, garnering an AA+ from rating firm Standard and Poor’s and an AA2 from Moody’s. Meanwhile, reserves grew from $12 million in the mid-1990s to $96 million in 2002.

As the economy slumped, officials tapped the reserves last year to help cover an $85 million shortfall. And by also employing measures such as a hiring freeze and cuts in vacant positions, they said they were able to largely steer clear of painful layoffs and direct service cuts.

Wittenberg said he is proud of the reserves and bond ratings, but proudest of his efforts to create a more positive, collaborative work environment and culture at 70 West Hedding St.

“You want to make sure (you have) the most productive, motivated employees, and I’ve worked very hard on that,” he said.

Regional officials gave him points for a down-to-earth outlook and sense of humor.

“Richard is a true professional and a very creative team player who accomplishes much with his style,” said Steve Szalay, executive director of the California Association of Counties.

Gilroy City Manager Jay Baksa – another longtime veteran of local goverment – said the county manager was “very professional and very easy to work with.”

“I’ve known Richard for a lot of years, and I’ve always had the highest respect for him,” he said.

But Wittenberg’s departure this year comes at a rough time for the county. Officials have predicted a local deficit of at least $75 million in the upcoming fiscal year’s budget that is blamed on the slow economy and rising retirement and health-care costs.

When combined with millions more in impacts expected to rain down from the state government’s massive $30-plus billion shortfall, leaders have raised the specter of both direct service cuts and layoffs in sewing up the gaps this time around.

Wittenberg acknowledged the budget issues are “unprecedented,” and among the toughest he’s seen in his career. But he said there’s no “right time” to depart, he said.

“I’m going at a very difficult time, but you can’t time these things perfectly,” he said. “Any time you go is not going to be a good time …

“I sure don’t want to end up being here however long and end up getting carried out of here in a box,” he joked. “It’s time to relax.”