A flurry of concern emerges after Santa Clara County quietly appoints a new CEO

A flurry of concern emerges after Santa Clara County quietly appoints a new CEO
Photo Credit: Santa Clara Co.
By Wesley Severson - Published on November 02, 2022.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors has voted to confirm a new county CEO, but the closed-door vote and the way it was announced is raising concerns — and has a lot of people upset. Earlier this month, the board voted 4 to 1 to appoint current Santa Clara County Attorney James Williams to the role of CEO. He will be replacing Jeff Smith, who has decided to retire after holding the position since 2009 — and Smith also revealed recently that he has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

Though the vote was taken back on October 17th, most people didn’t hear about Williams’ appointment until this week, which is leading many to claim that there was a huge lack of transparency. In fact, when Smith announced his retirement as county CEO on October 27th, there was no mention that the Board of Supervisors had already voted on Williams as his replacement. 

The only supervisor to vote against the move was Cindy Chavez, not because she thought Williams was unfit for the role but because she and other community members had concerns about the hiring process. “This is really one of the most important actions that we will take as a board, and we are missing an opportunity to continue to engage the community,” Chavez told the Mercury News. Santa Clara County Assessor Larry Stone believes the rush to hire such a critical position so quickly may be motivated by the upcoming election, which could create big changes within the Board of Supervisors. Chavez could win the San Jose mayor’s race, which would pull her away from the Supervisor role, and the term of Supervisor Mike Wasserman is up. 

Speaking to San José Spotlight, Stone said, “it’s certainly not an open, transparent, or deliberative process by any stretch of the imagination. It’s such an important decision to hire the chief executive officer of the entire county—23,000 employees, 1.9 million residents, $11.7 billion budget—there should be an open, transparent process to make this decision.” Supervisor Otto Lee voted in favor of Williams's appointment, but he admitted to San José Spotlight it could have been handled better. “There should have been more openness about this process. We should have received public input to make the process more transparent, and we will do better,” Lee said.

Supervisor Susan Ellenberg defended the decision to the Mercury News, saying, “the board sets direction, tone, and policy for this organization, and we do that in public. We make all personnel decisions regarding any of the board-appointed positions in closed session in accordance with the Ralph M. Brown Act.” That law requires local government business to be conducted at open and public meetings, except in certain limited situations. Smith is planning to leave the CEO’s office in July 2023, and the role will be then turned over to Williams. So far, there don’t appear to be any legal challenges to stop it from happening.