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Favorite rejects county post

The Minnesota woman was seen as best qualified to be chief administrative officer.

January 17, 2007|Jack Leonard and Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writers

A Minneapolis county executive offered the post of managing Los Angeles County's vast local government turned down the job Tuesday, officials said, dealing supervisors a setback in filling one of the county's most powerful positions.

Sandra L. Vargas, the administrator of Hennepin County, Minn., who interviewed in Los Angeles last week, notified her own county commissioners that she had decided against a move, said Hennepin County Commissioner Randy Johnson.

Los Angeles County supervisors agreed in a closed session last week to offer Vargas the position of chief administrative officer, Supervisor Mike Antonovich said.

Vargas is the second of five finalists to withdraw from the running for a job with so much clout that its holder often is described as the "sixth supervisor."

The chief administrative officer is appointed by the supervisors and is responsible for balancing a $21-billion budget that provides law enforcement, criminal justice, healthcare, welfare and other services to millions.

Several supervisors said they were unconcerned by Vargas' decision and thought they would find a suitable replacement soon for David Janssen, who officially retired Tuesday after more than 10 years in the job.

But others said they were not surprised that the task of selecting someone qualified to manage the nation's largest county government has proved difficult.

Most experienced government managers are past or close to retirement age, said Steve Keil, legislative director with the California State Assn. of Counties in Sacramento. The result is a reduced pool of candidates qualified to run large, urban governments.

"It's not easy to find those people," he said.

Potential candidates, he added, also might be deterred by the prospect of replacing Janssen, who is well liked and widely credited with seeing the county through tough economic times after taking over in 1996.

"There's absolutely nothing worse than having to fill in behind somebody that everyone thinks is superlative and can't be matched," Keil said.

Vargas, a gregarious and cost-conscious county administrator, was widely viewed as the most qualified candidate. She was the only finalist whose current job involves managing an entire county budget.

Hennepin County officials gave her high marks for working to reduce poverty, improve high school graduation rates and keep the county solvent.

"She's had a very major, positive impact on Hennepin County," said Johnson, chairman of the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners. Hennepin County is the most populous in Minnesota, with 1.1 million residents.

Vargas could not be reached for comment.

Another finalist, Michael Henry, Los Angeles County's director of personnel, withdrew Jan. 5, citing personal reasons. The remaining finalists are Wally Hill, the No. 2 administrator in Hillsborough County, Fla., which includes Tampa; Los Angeles County Treasurer and Tax Collector Mark Saladino; and Gilbert Ivey, chief administrator of the Metropolitan Water District.

Options available to supervisors include selecting a candidate from the three finalists, seeking more applications or approaching others.

On Tuesday, the board voted to keep Janssen in his post for up to 120 days while they continue their search. His annual salary is about $242,000.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said the board was "not in a hurry."

Antonovich said he rated two of the three finalists highly -- he declined to name them -- and thought the board could choose a successor to Janssen in the next two weeks.

Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke said others also might be interested in the job.

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jack.leonard@latimes.com

susannah.rosenblatt@latimes.com

Times staff writer Tony Barboza contributed to this report.

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