Little happens in Santa Clara County without first going through
Pete Kutras’ office
San Jose – When county leaders held a series of meetings with Morgan Hill residents angry about escapes from the city’s boys ranch earlier this year, Pete Kutras was always the most unpopular guy in the room.
As the county executive, it was Kutras’ job to tell the people what they couldn’t get: the ranch was not going be moved and the county was not going to build a fence around it.
Without kid gloves or a hint of political savvy, Kutras told his fellow Morgan Hill residents to accept the reality of living in the backyard of juvenile corrective facility that was built long before they moved in.
Supervisor Don Gage, on the other hand, listened to the complaints and told the people he would see what he could do for them. Months later, the ranch is still there, a fence has been built, and Gage is perceived as a hero.
There is perhaps no better illustration of the impossibility of Kutras’ job. As the CEO of Santa Clara County, Kutras is in some way responsible for almost everything that goes on here. But with five bosses on the board of supervisors, he is at the mercy of their separate political agendas.
It was Gage who pushed for the fence, but it was Kutras who found $900,000 to pay for it – a decision that will inevitably lead to cuts somewhere else in the budget. To some Morgan Hill residents, Gage overcame bureaucratic intransigence, but changes at the ranch came about only after Kutras, Gage and the other supervisors worked together to make them happen.
“Pete takes the bad cop and I’m the good cop,” Gage said. “Pete works for me and I work for the people. We make a good combination because we get to the right answer and the right answer is compromise. No matter how we do it, the answer is going to be the same. Nobody’s ever going to get everything they want.”
Kutras doesn’t seem to mind that he’s viewed as the bad guy. He even says that he enjoyed the Morgan Hill meetings and that it’s easier to please a group of supervisors than it is to keep thousands of voters happy.
“I sometimes have to carry the bad news,” he said recently. “That’s my role, to deliver straight, honest information. If Don doesn’t build an effective consensus with his peers to deliver what the community wants, he’ll get spoken to at the ballot box.”
And since Kutras took over as county executive in August 2003, he’s had little in the way of good information to deliver. The county is regularly running deficits of more than $100 million, services are shrinking, layoffs seem inevitable.
“People look at my job and ask, ‘why would you want to do that?'” Kutras said. “‘How can you get anything done?’ Having five bosses is probably the most difficult part of my job. I didn’t see that when I signed up. My goal is to have all five be pleased with my professionalism and my visions and goals for the county. On a bad day, it might only be three, but I can’t eat myself up over that.”
Kutras moved to Morgan Hill from Campbell with his wife, Geri, in 1998. He said they were attracted by the town’s strong sense of self.
“Morgan Hill has a real sense of community,” he said. “There is a clear, shared vision of where the community wants to go.”
One of the problems Kutras encountered with his neighbors over the boys ranch was that many of the residents angry about the facility did not have a clear understanding about what he does. In short, he’s the CEO of a company with more than 15,000 employees in 26 departments that provide more than 560 services, or as Kutras calls them “product lines.”
Almost nothing happens in the county without first going through Kutras’ office. He’s responsible for the $3.6 billion annual budget, for assessing the fiscal consequences of every proposed project and program, and for developing a coherent and transparent plan for county services.
“I don’t think we do an effective job of communicating what we do, the fuzziness of helping human beings through drug and alcohol addiction, social services, bad family situations” Kutras said. “They don’t lend themselves to figuring out what you get over there when you put a widget in there. Our services by definition don’t make money, but how much is too much to spend when you’re trying to rehabilitate a juvenile? What’s the cost of not addressing it?”
Kutras took the job in August 2003 and has been in the county’s executive’s office since 1996. The Vietnam veteran has been with the county since 1983 and has devoted his entire career to public service. Kutras said he laments that this generation has not had any “JFK moments,” but he understands why it’s so difficult to attract people to government.
“I talk to people in the private sector,” Kutras said, “and I tell them the difference between them and me is that they make more money, don’t have to meet with their board every other week and don’t have their bosses’ staff looking over their shoulder.”
County Assessor Larry Stone, who doesn’t have to answer to Kutras because he is elected but shares management of his office with the executive, has tangled with him in the past. Stone praises Kutras as a creative manager, but says he sometimes shows too much talent as a bureaucrat.
“He has done an impossible job quite well,” Stone said “He has done a very good job of increasing the talent level of senior management. He’s willing to confront the deadwood and the trouble spots.”
But Stone said Kutras hasn’t been willing to rewrite the rule book.
“This county is laden with bureaucratic nonsense,” Stone said. “Pete can be flexible and creative, but there’s no serious effort that I can see to change the rigid county rules and regulations. He’s really skillful at working around them, but doesn’t seem committed to changing them.”
Kutras said complaints like that feed the “myths of public employees.” He said the county’s biggest weakness is not shuffle-footing and paper-pushing, but a failure to not protect against future budget deficits.
With the county losing tax revenue to city redevelopment agencies and losing state and federal funding, Kutras needs to figure out how to keep the county solvent without annual cutbacks.
“We haven’t been collectively successful in finding a dedicated revenue stream. My predecessors and I haven’t lined that up yet,” he said. “Until there’s some clarity in the revenue stream, every person in my job and the people who follow me will struggle to balance the budget.”
That puts Kutras in a delicate position of demanding money from cherished and popular redevelopment agencies, like the one in Morgan Hill that built the Community and Cultural Center and several recreational facilities, and perhaps asking residents to pay higher taxes.
Neither option is going to enhance his popularity, even though they may improve county government long after he retires.
“What I hope,” Kutras said of his possible legacy, “is that people say, ‘I may not agree with him, but he’s speaking from the heart, he’s speaking the truth, and he’s doing the best he can.'”
Pete Kutras: In a Nutshell
– Salary: $232,575
– Coordinating the efforts and budgets of more than 15,000 employees in 26 departments offering more than 560 services.
– Making policy recommendations to the board of supervisors and coordinating the 3,500 staff reports issued to the board each year.
– Implementing policy decisions made by the board.
– Work History
– Deputy/Assistant County Executive 1996-2003
– Director of the county’s employee services agency 1993-1996
– Director of labor relations and personnel 1985-1993
– E-5, U.S. Army, Army Security Agency
– Served 18 months in Vietnam, where he received two awards for meritorious achievement
– Served 18 months in Asmara, Ethiopia
– Member of the board of trustees of the Campbell Union High School District
Residence: Morgan Hill, since 1998.
Wife: Geri, since 1970.
Geri Kutras is a former hi-tech marketer who is now a stay-at-home grandmother. She’s a quilt and fabric artist. Kutras calls her “my partner and best friend.”
Children: Joshua, 31, and Rachael, 34
Grandchildren: Zachary, 3, and Jessica, 4 months
Hobbies: Clay shooting, golf, books, movies