Merced County searching for a new CEO as Brown plans to retire

Jim Brown, County CEO

Recruitment ads and a four-page, color brochure describing the top position of “County Executive Officer” have started to appear recently on behalf of Merced County in select websites dedicated to government job searches.

The brochure features a long listing of 20 points detailing potential qualities of “The Ideal Candidate,” including the first point: “A strong administrative background with demonstrated skills in budget, finance, business analysis, economic development, human resources and labor relations, strategic and organizational planning, public policy, and intergovernmental relations.”

The county’s current CEO, Jim Brown, certainly has those down pat.

Brown started out with the county back in 1990 as an up-and-coming, budget analyst under CEO Clark Channing, and worked his way up to become Assistant CEO under Dee Tatum, before taking the top job in 2011.

“It’s challenging,” Brown told the Times. “What you have here is a broad spectrum of services, from law enforcement and the justice system to community services — whether it be planning or roads — and all the way to the health and human service system. Not that you need to know everything about those, but you have to have an understanding of all the different components. And you have to be able to work with the community, and the Board of Supervisors. And try to be flexible and adaptable. And have a fiscal sense.”

Earlier this year, according to Times sources, Brown started to hint about retiring, and confirmed his intentions to the Board members in early July.

“It is with mixed emotions that I will be stepping aside next year,” he told the Times after a meeting Tuesday. “While I enjoy working for our organization and our community, it is time to focus on, and spend more time, with my family.”

The decision, though quietly revealed, has already prompted rumor-mill speculation over who will replace Brown. Among the names of locals who are potentially in a position to vie for the job — at least those mentioned to the Times — include Merced City Manager Stephanie Dietz, who is a former county staff member, and the county’s Economic Development Director Mark Hendrickson.

However, Dietz has already indicated to the Times that she is content and committed to serving out her contract with the City Council, something that just started last year. She’s also embracing several significant ongoing projects, including a $27 million, federally funded spending plan to cover covid costs.

“I am actively informing people I know who might be interested in the county position,” she said. “It’s important for the city. The county’s administration is considered our strongest partner.”

As for Hendrickson, he did not confirm if he was considering a new job option or not, but he did smile when asked by the Times.

In any case, Board of Supervisors Chairman Daron McDaniel says he expects the recruitment of candidates will be a long process.

“To be honest, I hope we can find somebody, considering what’s going on right now in the state,” he told the Times.

McDaniel cited the current pandemic, the state struggling retirement system, and the experience needed to lead a county in the state of California as aspects narrowing the field of applicants.

“You don’t get as big as a pool as you think you are going to get,” he said. “California is a whole different animal compared to other states. We are going to have to look within, and we are going to have to look outward. I have made a few phone calls myself to people who I know in other counties who are in a decent position and where I think there’s an opportunity to get them.”

The supervisor added, “Jim did a really good job restructuring the management beneath him — with the way our department heads are now — and we have a nice group to actually pick from here locally, but you never know. Maybe there’s someone in a larger county who has more responsibility, but there’s a young CEO there, and they know it’s going to be a long time before they ever get to move up. Or maybe you have a small county CEO who is doing a good job, and is looking to move to a bigger county.”

According to the current job posting, those interested in “first consideration” should apply by Sept. 17. Preliminary interviews were set for Oct. 15.

“Considering Jim’s longtime service in the county, he is currently not replaceable,” Supervisor Lloyd Pareira said. “You have to wait for a person who gets that institutional knowledge which helps you understand the big picture at all times — then we can call ourselves fortunate.”

Brown’s current contract, inked in 2016, actually ends in December, but both McDaniel and Pareira have faith that the CEO will stay on a little longer if the job search drags on.

“He’s too young to retire,” said E.J. ‘Almo’ Lorenzi, a local developer in Merced who often works with the administration. “Jim Brown is one of the finest county administrators we have ever had, and we have had some good ones, starting with Andy Murphy.”

Merced County’s executive position was created with Murphy back in 1956, and he was followed by five others: Clark Channing, Greg Wellman, Dee Tatum, Larry Combs, and now Brown.

All but Combs — who had previously served as CEO in Sutter County for a record number of years — were considered “local” hires from within the existing county administration.

The CEO post is also the highest paid in county government — higher than those of the Sheriff, the District Attorney, the Public Defender, and the Health Officer.

Brown’s original contract in 2011 was for $230,000 annually. According to a Merced Sun-Star article in 2016, Brown “consistently ranks among the highest-paid county chiefs in the San Joaquin Valley.” His base pay at the time was listed as $250,000 a year.

According to the Transparent California data base, Brown’s 2019 salary was listed as $269,047.35, but additional benefits brought the “total pay and benefits” to $509,368. His current base salary, according to a Merced County official, is $313,352.

The county’s job posting touts a salary “dependent on qualifications,” plus an annual $8,400 auto allowance, a $4,800 expense allowance, a $1,800 communications allowance, a long list of insurance and retirement benefits, and 12 paid holidays per year, plus 1 paid personal holiday, along with annual sick and vacation accruals, sell-back options, and 96 hours of paid management leave annually.

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