Q&A: Placer County CEO David Boesch answers questions on his new role

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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AUBURN CA - David Boesch has taken the helm this month at Placer County as the new CEO. Boesch most recently served as county manager in San Mateo County, and was chosen after a five-month recruitment process by the Board of Supervisors to succeed Tom Miller. Miller announced his plans to retire in December and the search started the next month. A week into his new job, Boesch answered Journal questions during a half-hour interview, expressing confidence in the role he will play with the county and support for many of the programs already in place. He was hired at a base salary of $215,384 a year, plus management benefits. Boesch served as San Mateo County manager for almost three years. He was promoted from assistant county manager after less than two years. Before that, he was Menlo Park city manager. Boesch, 55, resigned from the San Mateo County post last November, citing a "difference in philosophies," according to Bay Area news reports at the time. In a statement released by Placer County, Boesch said he is committed to high-quality, cost-effective services, long-range financial management and fostering collaboration across work sectors. What will be your priorities as you take the job ? short and long-term? The board, with the assistance of the recruiter, did a really nice job of outlining some of the challenges confronting the county in the recruitment materials. So, not surprisingly, local governments, not just in California but across the country, are facing very challenging and unprecedented financial difficulties. So that kind of takes priority and everything else relates to it either directly or indirectly in terms of what services and programs can we sustain, what are the different funding sources associated with those and how we ensure we are providing the mix of services the community really wants and needs. It?s kind of a sorting-out process. The budget, of course, is the best place to see what the county?s priorities are and understand where the funds come from and (how) the resources are ultimately allocated. So that gives a lot of direction to the organization and to me specifically. And then, of course, there are a lot of big issues the county is working on, whether it is the FERC permitting of the (Middle) Fork or trying to bring to conclusion the conservation plan effort that builds off Placer Legacy. And land use and growth related issues, whether it?s up in the Tahoe Basin or down here in the Roseville-Rocklin area. It really covers the gamut. So part of the challenge will be, in the next few weeks to really figure out where best to apply my time and talent to really leverage off the work that staff has been doing and capitalize on some of these critical opportunities. How would you describe your management style? I try to be very open and approachable and try to take team-based approaches to issues because most of the complex matters that counties deal with really require multi-disciplinary approaches. We really need to ensure we have a variety of perspectives and input brought to bear on issues we?re confronting and so I like to use a lot of team-based approaches ? bring in people who have different perspectives, different experience, to kind of build off that and figure out how we can complement their technical expertise with my experience in leadership. Tell us a little more about Shared Vision 2025, which is described as a community-wide set of values used to shape the future in San Mateo County? In San Mateo, we really used that as an opportunity to engage our residents and various partners around the community in a conversation on what our county?s highest priorities are and set some sort of future vision. We called it our Shared Vision 2025, which is, on the one hand, a distant horizon but it really can provide some focus to ensure the decisions of today are based on the longer-term best interests of the county and ultimately each the constituent communities. And we really use that as an organizing framework so if you look at the San Mateo County budget, we?ve actually taken the five outcomes, as we call them. So, for example, (one is) ensuring that we create a healthy community. And we use that as a framework or structure to demonstrate all of the services the county provides that contribute to a healthy community. We really did take those words and try to animate them and use them to provide that kind of guidance and focus to the county ? not only in terms of how we organize ourselves but demonstrate measurable progress toward the achievement of those longer-term goals. Are you considering something similar in Placer County? I haven?t talked to the supervisors about that but it would certainly be a worthwhile effort if there was commitment to doing that. It can be really a part of the larger community engagement strategy to ensure that we?re clearly in tune to what the priorities of the community are and, in turn, we can demonstrate the county on a day-to-day, month-to-month basis, is really making a difference in the lives of our residents so they can feel more of a connection to the county. Often times, residents don?t really understand, let alone appreciate, what local government does ? especially counties in California that not only direct public safety services and libraries and things many of our residents look to their cities to provide. We do all that and so much more in terms of health and human services and criminal justice and other areas. I think to the extent the board would be interested in a visioning process we can use that as kind of a foundation for some of the other things that we want to work on. Was there one thing that made you want this job or a combination of factors? (It was) certainly a combination of reasons. We ? my wife, my son and I ? have gotten to know Placer County a little bit over the years. We?ve visited friends, taken advantage of some of the recreational opportunities here and it really has a remarkable quality-of-life aspect to it. We had thought many years ago that at some point in our lives this was a place we?d really like to relocate to. This opportunity presented itself and based on the kinds of issues the board?s dealing with and the kinds of qualities and qualifications they were looking for in their CEO it seemed to be a good match with my background and experience in addition to my real affinity to the area. It seemed like a real convergence of things that led me to be here. You?re 55, which puts you in line for retirement under CalPERS now or very soon. What are your plans in terms of length of service with the county? I?m a planner by habit and training so always looking on the horizon to make plans both personally and professionally. For me, I?m 55 but I love this work. I can?t imagine doing anything else. My time horizon is on the 10-to-15-year perspective, sort of. I can?t imagine retiring sooner than that and so long as the job is challenging and fulfilling, I hope to be here for a very long time. What are your thoughts on the question of pensions and reform? Placer County has already taken steps in that direction. I think that is really to the county?s credit, being proactive, so to speak. I think, ultimately there will be pension reform across the state of California. Most governments have realized the current system is unsustainable and something structurally needs to change. As we phase in new tiers and modify compensation and retirement structures, we have to be mindful that we will have multiple systems operating side by side and that?s going to create tensions in organizations where you have different employee pension and benefit structures. Moreover, one of the phenomena that we need to plan for is the fact that if you just look at the demographics of today?s work force, there are a lot of baby boomers who will be retiring in the next 10 years and we have to ensure for the sake of the organization and the community services we provide that we really have talent in the pipeline so we can attract young people to careers in local government. And we can retain them by giving them meaningful work, good, fair compensation, so we can keep them here and kind of grow our own so we have our own talent management program. A lot of people call it succession planning. The planning is good but the implementation program is what we have to focus on to make sure we really have talented, committed employees tomorrow like we have today. Placer is having contract talks with the Placer Public Employees Organization and Placer County Deputy Sheriff?s Association negotiations are due to start shortly. How will you be handling labor negotiations? The PPEO contract is going to the membership for ratification in a couple of weeks and we?re obviously hopeful that it comes to fruition so that we can move forward together. We are on the cusp of DSA negotiations. But these contracts today, because we?re into this so-called concession bargaining era, oftentimes contracts are going to be shorter term in nature just because of those factors. Ultimately, we work for the same government. We?re committed to serving our residents and so whether it?s management or labor-represented employees , we all have jobs to do and we need to do those effectively together. I?ve done labor relations for 30 years now and it?s really about trust, respect and credibility and I would expect to establish strong relationships with our labor leaders from the outset. Is there any area of the county you?re targeting as a home base? My wife still has work in the Bay Area so the likelihood is we?ll try to find a home somewhere between Auburn and the southwest parts of the county just to make her commute easier to the extent she continues to do work in the Bay Area. She?s an interior designer and has worked for a general contractor as a project manager for a number of years so my expectation is that over time she?ll shift her focus to more of the Placer County-Granite Bay area where there?s purported to be a fair amount of work, even in this economy. So my guess is somewhere between here (Auburn) and Granite Bay. We?ve got a couple of hot leads and we?re hoping something happens quick. Could you describe the reasons surrounding your departure last November as San Mateo County CEO? It really became evident back in early November that the board was looking to move in a different direction and thought that different leadership at the helm would be helpful in that regard. There wasn?t any single particular issue that resulted in my separating from San Mateo County. Some reporters have speculated that it had to do with the jail-planning process, where it was clear that at one point I had a different position that the sheriff and ultimately, where the board wanted to go. I don?t think that was the single issue that resulted in my separating from the county. Similarly, it?s been reported I took kind of an across-the-board approach to balancing the county budget, which really, I think misrepresents the process that we were taking to truly try to restore a structural balance to the county?s budget. We were really trying to take a very precise approach as opposed to a broad brush, sweeping reductions. These are challenging times and often-times organizations that are under some degree of stress feel like one of the ways to respond to that is to change the CEO and bring in a different leader with perhaps a different style. I respect the board?s prerogative in that area. What are the county?s strengths and perhaps weaknesses? As I?ve gotten to know staff in some of the departments and on the run doing more of that, I?m really impressed with the caliber and dedication of the county staff. They really care a lot about the work they do and making a difference in both the lives of the residents but also laying a strong foundation for the future. And you see evidence of that throughout the organization. I think the board is really progressive. On the one hand, we need to be fiscally prudent and financially conservative but they also recognize that now?s the time to really put our plans in place for the future so we can take advantage of all the assets and attributes Placer County has. There has been some really good studies done that provide guidance that looks to the future, whether it?s the conservation plan or some of these other major capital plans, the sewer project, or some of these other plans that lay the groundwork but also ensure that we have the necessary infrastructure in place so that Placer can prosper. On the downside? Probably too soon to have an opinion in that regard. As we look at some of our buildings we?re going to need to make sure we?ve got the kind of physical facilities we?ll need to cooperate out of over the long haul. There?s been some thoughtful planning in terms of the Middle Fork relicensing and the sewer project. As far as the hard assets of the county, there?s been some good attention paid to those. I want to better understand the strengths of our organization. Which departments are likely to experience some turnover and transition as people retire and move on. So we really want to make sure we have a really good strong bench of staff who can step up and take on those expanded roles and responsibilities. There are some ways that we can really support employees that may have not been quite as high a priority in the past. I?ve done a lot of community and economic development work but I?ve also done a lot of organizational development work in terms of really enlisting and engaging employees and providing the kind of support structures they need so they can achieve their fullest potential. And also as we roll that up to beyond the individual-level contribution and achievement, figuring out how we can continue to evolve and improve the way we serve our residents, so we?re really able to demonstrate that we are cost-effective and focused on results. What part of the job do you like the most? I love the diversity of what counties work on in California. Having worked in other states, I think our residents and even our employees sometimes don?t fully appreciate that governments operate differently elsewhere. So when I came to California and started to work for cities, it became readily apparent that cities in California have a relatively narrow scope, certainly compared to counties. It doesn?t diminish the importance that they play but I?ve realized after having been in California for a decade or so is that my real life?s calling was in county government if I was to stay in California because not only do you provide all of the same array of city services but you also provide the health and human services and the criminal justice services that cities are not involved with. And so to the question, I really love the diversity of what counties do and the fact that you can really see and in many cases measure the impact of your effort and people experience whether they realize it or not. They?re interacting with local government every day of their lives, whether it?s when they turn on the tap or flush the toilet or when they drive on the roads. And so local government really is grass roots. It affects people?s lives every day. What did your parents do? My father was a lifelong telephone company man. He served in World War II. He was a Marine aviator and then came back, went to college at night and worked for the telephone company during the day. He then fought in the Korean War but his entire career was spent with the telephone company. And my mom was a teacher. She taught both middle school and high school. When my brother and I were younger, she taught part-time and as we became more self-sufficient, she took on larger, longer-term assignments. Do you have relatives in Placer County? You mentioned friends in Roseville that you are initially staying with? We have friends in Rocklin and Roseville. Most of the Boesch family is East Coast centered. I?ve got over a hundred first relatives because both of my parents? families were quite large. But it was just my brother and I. He?s back in the Boston area and so it?s just my wife, my son and I out here. I grew up in Bethesda, Md. I went out to the University of Utah to major in what I thought they called architecture only to learn that what I really wanted to do was city planning. So I majored in urban and regional planning and then started my career in Utah and was very satisfied, moving along the career path quite nicely and then I got an invitation to apply to the mid-career master?s program at the Kennedy School of Government (at Harvard) And so we pulled up stakes and moved to Boston for two years. And that was a great experience. And we?ve kind of bounced around since then.