A county commission set up to decide who receives grants from $11.7 million per year in state cigarette taxes named an Ojai resident its first executive director Thursday night.
Claudia Harrison, the unanimous selection of the six commission members who met in Newbury Park, began her three-year contract as executive director of the Children and Families First Commission of Ventura County on Thursday. She will be paid $93,493 annually.
Harrison, 47, spent the past six years as director of business development at Blue Cross of California in Newbury Park, where she oversaw development of new opportunities for the uninsured and created health and wellness programs.
She also managed the insurer's participation in a pair of state programs, Access for Infants and Mothers and the Major Risk Medical Insurance Program.
Proposition 10--the statewide referendum that created the commission--"is a chance to truly make a difference in the lives of young people," Harrison said. "I look forward to working with the diverse community in Ventura County."
Consultant Steve Kaplan will continue his 13-month relationship with the commission for no more than 90 days and for no more than $15,000 to help Harrison make the transition. Kaplan, the county's former mental health chief who was ousted last year, has already been paid more than $100,000 for his work with the commission.
Harrison was one of 16 applicants for the executive director's post, said Barbara Fitzgerald, commission co-chairwoman. Her application was buoyed by her three years of experience organizing public-private partnerships in Mexico and her fluency in Spanish, commission chairwoman and Ventura County Supervisor Kathy Long said.
Harrison also worked in early child intervention for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. She earned her master's of business administration at Boston College and holds a bachelor's degree from Tufts University in Boston.
Her husband, Michael Smith, 48, is a stay-at-home father. They have a 4-year-old son.
Commission members Chuck Watson and Debbie Bergevin were on vacation but met Harrison during the interviewing. Bedford Pinkard arrived late and missed the vote.
The commission, created last year after voters in 1998 approved Proposition 10, which created a 50-cent-a-pack tax on cigarettes to pay for health programs for children, has been criticized for not having any Latino members.
On Thursday, Long bristled at the criticism and said all county supervisors had chances to appoint commissioners and none chose a Latino.
For now, however, the focus for the commission is to sift through grant applications due next month. The commission will decide who receives about $2 million in grants by September, Long said, and the panel plans to make its first distributions in October.
Applications are available on the commission Web site, http://www.vcchildren.org.
Harrison faces tough critics from the county.
"There hasn't been any performance, and that's the whole point," Supervisor Frank Schillo said. "I don't know what they've been doing.
"Setting up a foundation to find out what people want is a waste of money. You don't have to spend a million dollars to do that. You just go out and talk to people and find out what they want."
Long defended the commission's year of planning and said she knew of only three of 58 California counties that have distributed money so far. The commission will conduct community meetings later this month, and Harrison said she was up to the task.
"Our challenge is to build public-private partnerships as a way to reach out to the whole community, and the funds are for all segments of the community," she said.