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Politics

County Supervisors hold closed session in search for new CAO

A sign directing people to the San Diego County administration building in downtown San Diego is shown on Feb. 26, 2024.
Carlos Castillo
/
KPBS
A sign directing people to the San Diego County administration building in downtown San Diego is shown on Feb. 26, 2024.

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors held a special closed session Friday, as part of the search for a new chief administrative officer to replace Helen Robbins-Meyer.

According to the agenda, the session involved interviewing semifinalists; it was unclear whether the applicants' names have been made public. After a brief public comment period, the board went into closed session.

The meeting will resume at 1:30 p.m. Friday, according to the county. One man who called in said the county needs "a CAO who supports full transparency and honesty with the people," and praised interim CAO Sarah Aghassi.

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After the interviews, a panel made up of 10 community members — two selected by each supervisor — will interview candidates and provide feedback to the board, which will then conduct final interviews on May 22.

The CAO acts essentially as the county mayor, whose office compiles the budget and keeps the county running day-to-day Robbins-Meyer retired in January after serving in the position since 2012.

Robbins-Meyer announced her retirement in October 2022, with a planned departure in late March 2023. However, she stayed in her position following a political earthquake involving former District 4 Supervisor Nathan Fletcher.

Fletcher resigned in May 2023 in the wake of sexual assault and harassment allegations involving a former Metropolitan Transit System employee, which he has denied.

Supervisors voted 4-0 in April 2023 in favor of keeping Robbins-Meyer as interim CAO for a limited time. Last September, the board restarted the CAO search. On Jan. 9, supervisors selected Aghassi — previously deputy CAO with 18 years' total experience in San Diego County government — for the head job while the recruitment process took place.

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The CAO search was brought up during the regular board meeting Tuesday, when several activists called for a transparent process and criticized the board for not considering Cindy Chavez, a Santa Clara County supervisor, for the job.

According to a recent Voice of San Diego article, Chavez "had been the leading candidate for the job and was nearly finished with the process" when the Fletcher scandal broke.

Kyra Greene, of the Center on Policy Initiatives, said on Tuesday that after Fletcher's departure someone leaked Chavez's name to media. She added the Board of Supervisors has spent more time and money on consultants, while those who had faith in the selection process feel they have been lied to.

"Twice now, this board has opted to take the process behind closed doors," said Greene, CPI executive director.

Crystal Irving, president of Service Employees International Union Local 221, said she was disappointed that she and others had to appear before the board, as they have worked to make it more worker-friendly.

Irving asked board Chairwoman Nora Vargas to fix the public input process. "You were elected, Nora, because you are a strong leader," Irving told Vargas.

Supervisor Monica Montgomery-Steppe said that while she wouldn't comment on closed-session matters, she understood workers' concern over choosing a new CAO.

She added that the hiring process is not always conventional, but doing so in public "would probably benefit us all in the long run."

Board Vice Chair Terra Lawson-Remer said she also wants more transparency, including interviewing finalists in public.

However, "that's not where we are right now," she said, adding that she was looking at whether the county can change how it finds a new executive leader.

At one point Tuesday, people in the audience began chanting, "Hey, hey, ho, ho give us a voice for CAO," prompting the announcement of a recess by board clerk Andrew Potter.

After supervisors left the chamber, several members of various unions remained and appeared to be yelling toward the gallery.