Ending months of uncertainty, Los Angeles County supervisors unanimously voted Tuesday to hire veteran city and county administrator William T. Fujioka to the newly empowered county executive post.
Recently retired from the city of Los Angeles' top administrative job, Fujioka is scheduled to begin July 30. His annual salary will be $310,000.
Board members praised Fujioka's independence and work ethic, and appeared relieved to find a replacement for popular outgoing county executive David E. Janssen after a challenging months-long search.
"He is the right man for the job at a time when Los Angeles County faces some very difficult, critical decisions," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
The new top executive of the nation's largest county government must balance a $21-billion budget, manage a 100,000-person workforce and, under a dramatic new power structure, oversee most county departments.
Fujioka, who retired from the city in February, will immediately grapple with grave problems at Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital, which is on the brink of closure by federal regulators.
"He feels very strongly that that hospital should stay open," Supervisor Gloria Molina said Tuesday.
Fujioka brings roughly a decade of healthcare experience to his new position: The 54-year-old helped guide the turnaround of High Desert Hospital in Lancaster and was an administrator at County-USC Medical Center. He also worked in city and county personnel departments and served as the county's human resources manager.
Both Fujioka and supervisors acknowledged that the county executive's newly expanded authority over departments such as Health Services was critical in enticing him to the post.
"That opportunity to fully develop that new structure was something I didn't want to pass up," Fujioka said. Having advised three L.A. mayors and worked with myriad City Council members, Fujioka emphasized that diplomacy was key to navigating often-clashing supervisors as well as department heads.
"I'm not someone who's ego-driven, I'm not someone who's autocratic," said Fujioka, who lives in Bradbury, east of Monrovia in the San Gabriel foothills, and is married with a teenage son. "It's not my job to play politics."
Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti cited Fujioka's abilities to build consensus on tough political issues.
"He can really corral cats," Garcetti said Tuesday. Fujioka "understands how to motivate elected officials and bring them together for common purposes." Former Mayor Richard Riordan tried to fire Fujioka in 2000 for growing too close to City Council members; council members backed Fujioka and he kept his job.
City Controller Laura Chick, surprised at news of Fujioka's appointment, recalled him standing firm against angry City Council members during her time on the council in the mid-1990s, defending the personnel department's unpopular recommendation on a city contract.
"He did not back down," she said. "He's a fighter, he's a truth teller."
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa described Fujioka in a statement as a "tremendous" public servant whose "selection bodes well for continuing and expanding cooperation between the city and county."
Greeted by a standing ovation in the board hearing room as he sat down in Janssen's leather chair, Fujioka joked that his 79-year-old mother, Linda, could stop asking him, "When are you going to get a job?"
The county had struggled to replace Janssen, who officially retired in January but remained in his post on a short-term contract; his salary was $242,000 a year. Two candidates for the top executive post rejected the county's job offers. In January, Sandra L. Vargas, a county executive from the Minneapolis area, declined the offer to instead run a charitable foundation there. Orange County Chief Executive Thomas G. Mauk shocked board members when he abandoned the county post one day after agreeing to become the top manager.
Supervisor Mike Antonovich had criticized the previous recruitment efforts as too limited.
"We'd almost been a joke in terms of would we ever find anyone to take David Janssen's place," Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke said. The board voted to hire Fujioka within hours of his interview Tuesday.