New County Planner Has 30 Years Experience But Comes With Baggage

Alexeeff resigned as director of planning in Santa Barbara
County after just two years on the job, essentially to avoid being
San Jose – Santa Clara County’s new planning director comes to the job with a glossy résumé and some baggage.

In 30 years of planning and development experience, Valentin Alexeeff forged a reputation as highly intelligent and a strong leader, but earlier this year, his run of success came to an abrupt end.

In March, Alexeeff resigned as director of planning in Santa Barbara County after just two years on the job, essentially to avoid being fired.

Charged with reforming an office that was getting excoriated annually by the county Grand Jury for opaque procedures and unresponsive staff, Alexeeff didn’t meet expectations. And when the balance of power on the county board of supervisors moved to the right in the last election, the planner realized he would be pushed if he didn’t jump.

“You have to accept the political realities of change,” Alexeeff said. “I was hired to do one job, the board majority shifted, and they wanted to go a different route. They had been at war for a long time with the planning department with property rights being at the center of it. The board went from blue state to red state and they wanted to accomplish things in a different way.”

Santa Barbara County Supervisor Salud Carbajal said that Alexeeff did a good job, but didn’t do enough to reach out to various community interests, particularly homebuilders and developers.

“Overall, he did a fairly good job, he just didn’t do enough base-touching,” Carbajal said. “This is one of the toughest jobs because of the attention land use decisions get. It wasn’t that he himself failed, it was the process that failed.”

And though Santa Clara County’s politics may not be as combative as in Santa Barbara County – there is talk there of splitting the county in two – the local planning office is hardly free of strife.

Alexeeff is taking over the office just in time to develop what are sure to be controversial and politically-charged new rules for hillside home-building, and once again, his task is to right an office with a reputation for inconsistent and arbitrary decisions.

“That is a very classic criticism of planning departments, that they are a law unto themselves,” Alexeeff said. “Planning anywhere in this state is going to be in conflict. I want to be here because there is great diversity, people from all over the world. There’s going to be some trend setting that will take place here and I like to be in the big game.”

Before he worked in Santa Barbara County, Alexeeff was planning director and city manager in Clayton, director of the Contra Costa County Growth Management and Economic Development Agency and director of the Contra Costa County Policy and Innovation Institute.

His hiring capped a search that lasted more than a year. In the absence of a permanent leader, the office has been run by retired planner Mike Lopez. Jody Hall Esser, a consultant from southern California, was brought in to reform the county’s fractured farmland tax break regulations.

“People don’t understand how difficult it is to attract people to government jobs,” Santa Clara County Supervisor Don Gage said. “He’s a very smart man. As long as he stays out of the political part of it and deals with the technical aspects, he’ll be great. Leave the politics to us, that’s why we’re elected.”

County Executive Pete Kutras, who hired Alexeeff, said the planner’s stellar career far outweighed the trouble he encountered in Santa Barbara County.

“We did a very extensive background check and my take was that the circumstances in Santa Barbara were extremely unique,” Kutras said. “It was not him per se and everyone tells us that.”

Kutras said Alexeeff will be judged by the improvements he makes in customer service, the clarity he brings to planning procedures and his ability to balance development and environmental interests.

“What I can’t tolerate are the interminable delays where applicants don’t get clear direction about what they need to do. That doesn’t mean rolling over and letting people do what ever they want,” Kutras said. “We’re not trying to cover every inch of the valley floor with asphalt, but at the same time, we need to promptly and appropriately handle applications that come through.”

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