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County Pays Tribute to Hufford

Government: Colleagues honor the departing interim chief administrator at a party and at his last supervisors' meeting. He is credited with correcting budget problems in his 15 months on the job.

March 28, 2001|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a day that honored outgoing Chief Administrative Officer Harry Hufford for rescuing an ailing county budget and reining in public safety funding, perhaps the most colorful goodbye came from his onetime foe, Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury.

Standing before more than 100 county workers at a going-away party Tuesday night, Bradbury read from a poem he penned called, "Coming and Going In a Huff."

"So out went the call for a hired gun.

'Big Money,' they said they'd pay.

And a man rose to answer the call.

From the mean streets of downtown L. A.

. . . He won't last long, the Local Gazette prophesied.

'No one can tame this here town.'

Hell, he'll have to whup the whole board.

And get the federales to also calm down.

. . . Well, the story now is a familiar one.

Ya see that stranger did come around.

And he changed the way we do things here.

Now he's ready to ride outta town."

The flattery drew thunderous applause from those who know Hufford. And it prompted the now-familiar aw-shucks grin from the honoree.

Only a few hours earlier, Hufford mused on the tributes he is receiving this week as he prepares to step down after 15 months as the county's interim chief administrative officer.

"All this attention focused on you," he said. "It's nice, but most retirees want to go quietly away."

One of the biggest goodbye bashes was Tuesday night's dinner at the Pierpont Inn in Ventura, where county colleagues bestowed plaques, gifts and words of thanks upon their departing hero.

With more goodbye parties and dinners still in store, Hufford is destined to go out with as much fanfare as when he stepped onto the county stage in January 2000, just weeks after his predecessor unexpectedly resigned--after four days on the job--with a letter that warned of imminent fiscal disaster.

Supervisors turned to Hufford, 69, a retired county administrator from Los Angeles, to work financial and political wizardry in Ventura County. And he did.

"He used his experience and his ability to bring some order to county government," said Supervisor John K. Flynn, a 25-year board veteran. "He will always come to mind whenever I think of the great people I've worked with in government."

Supervisor Steve Bennett, who took his seat on the board in January, said he was pleased that he had some time to work with Hufford, whom he called an expert in fiscal matters.

"He gave the board and the staff the courage to say we've got to make the hard decisions," Bennett said.

Among those was a vote two weeks ago to reduce the size of inflationary increases given to public safety departments--a move opposed by the county's politically powerful sheriff and district attorney. Hufford argued that the change was needed to right a lopsided $1-billion budget that devoted too much money to public safety while shortchanging other basic government services.

Hufford's watch also included reforms that strengthened his office, giving him greater hiring and firing power over department heads and greater control over the budget. And Hufford, a personable man with a seemingly perpetual grin, managed to persuade a divided Board of Supervisors that members needed to work together to solve problems.

The result has been restored public confidence in a county system that just 15 months ago was reeling from political infighting, a growing budget shortfall and plummeting employee morale.

Some even credit Hufford's popularity among residents with helping to defeat Measure O, a controversial attempt by private hospitals to wrest control of $250 million in tobacco settlement funds from supervisors. County voters overwhelmingly turned down the initiative in November.

Although Hufford says he appreciates accolades from his colleagues, it's the occasional praise he gets on the street that really moves him. He's become something of a local celebrity, with residents interrupting dinner or coffee around town to offer a handshake and say "good job."

"I get that wherever I am," Hufford said. "People walk up and just thank me. It's usually a very private thing, but it's really special."

It doesn't hurt either that Hufford is the kind of guy that people just like. Colleagues use words like personable, approachable or even, according to the resolution honoring him, "folksy."

"That, to me, was the most important thing he brought," Flynn said. "The friendship. Harry can meet any challenge. But I really like him, too."

Even Bradbury, who publicly fought with Hufford over the issue of public safety funding, has quipped: "He's a man I'd like to have as a lasting friend."

He even mentioned the old hot-button issue in his good-natured send-off poem, saying:

"The D. A. and sheriff are scratchin' their heads,

And feeling a pain in their gullet.

Who was that masked man, the sheriff asked.

Don't know, said the D. A., but he left us a silver bullet."

As his final working day approaches Friday, Hufford hasn't slowed. He's scheduled back-to-back meetings all week, mostly in an effort to prepare successor John Johnston for the tasks ahead, including contentious labor negotiations with the Ventura County Deputy Sheriff's Assn.

But Hufford says that's just his way of inching toward retirement. Despite looking forward to a trip with his wife to Barbados next week, he said that saying goodbye will be hard.

"There's a depression that goes with this. So much adrenaline is poured into a job like this," Hufford said. "But I've enjoyed being able to maybe set a model for how I think the job ought to be done."

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