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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

University, County Pick New Leaders

Johnston to Assume Top County Post

March 07, 2001|MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Choosing a man known more for his ability to balance a tight budget than to stare down department heads, county supervisors Tuesday unanimously selected veteran county employee John Johnston to replace Harry Hufford as chief administrator next month.

Johnston, 58, affable chief of the General Services Agency, has worked for the county for nearly 14 years, beginning in the 1970s and resuming in 1998 after a stint in the private sector.

After a statewide search that included a number of experienced administrators outside Ventura County, supervisors concluded Tuesday that the best choice to follow Hufford was right inside the County Government Center.

"He's a seasoned veteran, and we've got some major issues to deal with," Supervisor John K. Flynn said. "I didn't see anyone from the outside who really matched his abilities."

Supervisor Judy Mikels described Johnston as "the undiscovered gem; he was right under our noses the whole time."

Johnston, an Ojai resident, said he is prepared for the challenges ahead and hopes that he will be a good follow-up to Hufford, who earned a reputation as a genial but strong-willed administrator.

"I hope I will fill his shoes adequately," Johnston said. "I am prepared to go forward on all fronts."

This wasn't Johnston's first run at the post. He also was considered in 1999 to replace retiring administrator Lin Koester. Supervisors instead chose David Baker, chief of San Joaquin County. But Baker proved a poor fit, quitting after only four days on the job and leaving behind a blistering letter warning that the county was on the brink of financial chaos.

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Rather than fill the post with a permanent administrator, supervisors sought an interim chief who would take hard-line stands in the short term to restore the county's credibility and financial stability. They chose Hufford, 69, a veteran of Los Angeles County who was known statewide as a dean of county administration and a financial Mr. Fix-It.

Hufford proved to be a masterful student of county politics, drawing a divided Board of Supervisors together to deal with a growing budget shortfall. He also shepherded through reforms aimed at strengthening the chief executive's ability to control the county's $1-billion budget and plan for future projects.

But Hufford agreed to stay only until the end of this month, when he plans to return to retirement.

Mikels said that in the latest search, Johnston came across as a stronger candidate than before.

"The last time he interviewed, I didn't get the feeling he really wanted the job," she said. "This time, he had the answers. He's got the fire in the belly and clearly made the statement that when he came back three years ago, it was with the intention of filling these shoes."

But Herb Gooch, chairman of the political science department at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, said he views the board's choice with some skepticism.

"I've heard positive things about him," Gooch said of Johnston. "But this does seem to break a pattern. If they didn't think anybody inside was a first-rate choice two years ago or a year ago, what's changed? Has that person demonstrated increased abilities? Were the outside candidates not as good?"

Gooch said supervisors may see Johnston as a milder version of Hufford, who has played a prominent role in guiding county policy for the last 14 months.

"Is this a guy who plays the political game or is he a technician, someone who does a good job on the orders of others?" Gooch said. "We just don't know."

Johnston holds a master's degree in public administration from USC. He was Ojai's city manager in the early 1970s and was hired by the county in 1974 to head the agency he runs today. He left in 1985 and went to work for the building industry. From 1991 to 1998, he served as deputy executive officer for Los Angeles Superior Court.

In 1998, he returned to Ventura County to run the Parks Department. The following year, he was tapped to oversee the 270-employee General Services Agency, which provides the county's support services.

He has continued to directly oversee parks as well. As that department faced budget cuts, Johnston was forced to look for ways to get the public to pay extra to keep parks open. He has supported building fees-producing golf courses on county land.

Johnston plans to begin shadowing Hufford immediately, using the next three weeks as transition time. He is expected to earn $167,000 a year plus benefits. Baker's contract was $157,784.

Johnston said he aims to follow Hufford's lead on several fronts. That includes a plan to scale back automatic increases to law enforcement budgets. The plan has met resistance from two powerful forces, Sheriff Bob Brooks and Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury. But Johnston believes that it is "a fairly moderate solution."

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Without some modification to the current funding scheme, he said, public safety funding could grow to the detriment of other basic services.

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