County Manager, County of San Mateo
Published: December 2007
John Maltbie, San Mateo County Executive and Joint Venture Board member, lives a block away from the house in which he grew up in East San Jose. He has worked nearly all of his adult life in Silicon Valley. But his public sector career represents the journey of his generation.
“Every age group has its seminal events,” John reflects on his passion for public service. “In my generation it was the election and death of John F. Kennedy and the War in Vietnam. I saw the public sector as a calling, inspired by JFK, and then, as an officer in Vietnam, I saw the flip side, how destructive public policy can be.”
In a graduate seminar he teaches at San Jose State, he emphasizes the intrinsic rewards of working in the public sector. “I tell my students that there are moments when you can look back and say, ‘Wow. I made a difference.’ Those moments are what make this calling worthwhile.”
Beyond his passion, it is John’s vision, his collaborative leadership skills and his interest in getting things done that have enabled him to lead San Mateo County for the last 18 years in a job in which the average tenure is slightly longer than four years. “When I started I was the youngest county executive in California,” John recalls. “Today I am the longest tenured.”
“John keeps his ego in check,” says Mike Nevin, who has known John for nearly twenty years, first as a councilmember in South San Francisco, and then as a member of the Board of Supervisors from 1993-2005. “There’s an art to getting things done in the public sector. So many people in the overstep the bounds of their office when they have a project they’re championing. If John sees something that’s worth doing, he’s willing to let you think it’s your idea if it will help get it done. Beyond that, he has a caring and sensitivity. He’s got a human touch. He’s very bright. He can see when there’s substance. He knows when there’s truth, and he supports you with the tools he has at his disposal when he knows it’s right.
“What has enabled John to work with the Board of Supervisors for so long is that we trust him,” says Jerry Hill, who has served on the San Mateo Board for nine years. “Not only is he intelligent, creative and a good listener, but when he’s wrong he says it. In a world where a huge portion of our budget is automatically allocated to health care, human services and the courts, John focuses on the long term, and sustainability. Time and again he has steered us away from intractable problems. Along the way we’ve built a reserve fund of $200 million, which makes other counties drool”
“John is an extremely principled person. It’s what defines him,” says close friend Brian Lawther, an attorney at the Baccardo Law Firm. “Loyalty is his principal quality. He will stand by things that are important to him. But he’s tough. John will do what he can to help a worthy cause, but if you try to influence him improperly, he never forgets it.”
John cut his teeth in the public sector in Santa Clara County. After receiving a BA and MA in Political Science at San Jose State University, both with concentrations in public management, John worked as an intern for longtime Santa Clara County Executive Howard Campin. “Howard was a wonderful teacher,” John recalls. “Just watching him taught me so much about how to be successful in the public sector, and he gave me many opportunities to learn by doing.”
After serving two years as an officer in Vietnam, John returned to public service as an Assistant City Manager for the City of Milpitas. “I was in the right place at the right time,” he says. “After a year the City Manager retired, and I was hired to replace him.”
In 1982, after three years in Milpitas, he was recruited to become City Manager of Glendale, Arizona, with a city government four times the size of Milpitas. His three year stint there was the only time in his professional career he worked outside of Silicon Valley.
He returned to Santa Clara County in 1985, this time as Assistant County Executive of the fourth largest county in California, working with County Executive Sally Reed. “I have always been drawn to county government,” John says. “The difference between cities and counties is the difference between physical services and human services. Counties administer health care, social services and criminal justice systems, and are critical to the administration of state and federal programs.”
After four years in Santa Clara, he was hired as County Manager of San Mateo County in 1989, and has been there ever since. “One of the things I have loved about being in San Mateo is that the issues are the same as they were in Santa Clara – both counties are committed to health care and to programs for the most vulnerable citizens -- but in San Mateo we’re 65% the size of Santa Clara. Our problems are smaller in scale. In health care for example, our indigent care population is 8000. It keeps us from being overwhelmed. We can look at that population and say, ‘We can do this.’”
This attitude has been a key factor in John’s longevity in San Mateo. Since the passage of Proposition 13 in 1977, city and county governments have been faced with an increasing mandate to provide more services with fewer funds as the state appropriates a higher percentage of tax revenues. As John puts it, “The state sneezes and we catch a cold. With counties, there’s little relationship between the responsibility of providing services and the ability to raise funds.”
Looking to the Long Term
The key to success, he argues, is looking to the long term. “70% of our budget is social services and in the short term we can’t control the demand for services. However, we can work to control demand in the long term by early intervention, developing programs with children and families that will remove the stressors that make them need services.
“But then you have to have enough patience and flexibility in the budget to wait for fifteen years as these programs bear fruit.”
In a public environment in which elected officials are constrained by term limits and professional management serves for short periods, it is this long term perspective that has made John’s tenure in San Mateo County unique. “So much of organizational management has to do with cultures,” John says. “The Board has the respect of county management, and I think that respect is reciprocated. The Board takes the point of view that it’s not only the right financial thing that’s important, it’s the right human thing.
As a result, the County is able to target $250-300 million of its $1.7 billion budget annually for innovative and forward looking programs. Many of these have been hailed as innovative and at the cutting edge of social policy. John singles out several initiatives as those of which he is most proud:
- “Before welfare reform, we felt we needed to change the welfare paradigm. We needed to stop just giving checks, and instead become a positive force to help people achieve their potential. We created a new Department of Social Services, grouping departments that hadn’t been put together before. We have focused on providing services for kids under five.”
“He was the first person to advocate this,” says Supervisor Hill, and points to the Children’s Health Initiative, which provides health care for children who are not otherwise covered, as a key piece of this initiative. “This is something John can take credit for,” he says. The program is a collaboration of multiple agencies, with a third of funding coming from the County general fund, a third from the Community Foundation, and a third from Sequoia and mid-Peninsula Health Services.
- “We took a moribund old committee, the Regional Planning Committee, and created the City-County Association of Government, including the 20 cities in San Mateo and the County. We took on congestion management, which is something we could have given to the transit district, but we decided to use it as a way to revitalize planning in a coordinated way.
This joint powers agreement among multiple governments is now ten years old, and “has been a great vehicle for good sound regional planning.”
- The County started its own charter school in Redwood City. “We saw a school in which 97% of the students were non-English speaking and that was underfinanced, and we thought, ‘Maybe we can make a difference.’ With the full cooperation of the Redwood City School District, we put a health care clinic on campus, as well as mental health and other social services, and we rebuilt the recreational facilities. The school has shown steady improvement, and is now in the top tier of comparable schools.
“In doing this, we’ve learned a great deal about school-based services and have spread many of the lessons learned to other school districts in the County. Along the way we’ve developed great collegial relationships with educators, and we’ve formed an organization called the Peninsula Partnership for Children, with representatives from education, children’s services, cities, and nonprofits. The group provides oversight and serves as a clearinghouse for services.”
- “We were the first employer in San Mateo County to build and run a day care service for our employees – we service about 85 kids, which I’m proud to say has included my grandchildren. I think this is a great example of how our Board supports services for children.”
Over the years, John’s vision, leadership and willingness to get things done have been inspirational to others. “In the public sector, you’re either a ribbon cutter or a policy man,” says Nevin. “In one incident early in my public sector career, John helped give me the courage to go beyond being a ribbon cutter.
“We were working on building a home for schizophrenic patients. We fought huge NIMBYism. Nobody wanted this home in their neighborhood. As people tended to shy away, John stuck and stayed, and we got it done. That was a cherished moment for me. He gave me the courage to fight for the underrepresented.”
“A county manager has the ability to stop anything, but John has supported every Board initiative,” says Hill. “He’s such a bright individual, always thinking two or three steps ahead. I go to him to brainstorm ideas – he always sees the roadblocks ahead and helps us navigate past them.”
John sees Joint Venture as the embodiment of many of the principles he regards as most important. “I talk to my class at San Jose State about this all the time,” he says. “The most important thing a public manager has to do, particularly in diverse communities, is to manage in a way that perpetuates our democratic institutions, and that supports fairness, the bedrocks of our country.
“Joint Venture is the only vehicle for doing this in Silicon Valley. We take on the great issues, and we’re a big tent, for labor, government, business, and community interests. We look at what needs to be done, engage the community, and get it done. Joint Venture came along at the right time, and now I can’t imagine what we’d do without it.”
He points to the New California Network (need link) as a great example of what Joint Venture can do. “I was on the Speaker’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on finance. Like everyone else who looks at California finance, we saw that it was broken. It’s like an immovable object versus an irresistible force.
“There have been five or six commissions like this. The results are all similar, but they always wind up in a black hole because all the interest groups are looking after themselves.
“But New California Network has come up with common sense recommendations that will really make a difference in terms of finance and delivery of services. Equally important, it has gravitas because of the people involved. This is what JVSV should be about – bringing democracy and representative government to a diverse community that is busy but is willing to contribute if you put their time to good use.”
He is also excited about Joint Venture’s developing education initiative. “A lot of substantive work has been done on this, and I think it’s headed in the right direction,” he feels. “It’s all about the teacher – training and supporting excellence.”
The time requirements for John’s professional activities do not keep him from playing golf, which has been his chief recreation since he was a boy. His younger brother Roger, a former PGA star and now a professional golf commentator, recalls, “We moved to a house near San Jose Country Club and our dad, John and I all took up golf at the same time. John is really good – he played number one at James Lick High, and still plays at least once, sometimes twice a week, with a seven handicap.” When pressed about whether John had ever beaten him, Roger pauses, then says, “Well, maybe when I was a boy, but he is a faster runner than I am.” (John claims he also beats Roger at poker.)
His intimate knowledge of golf, coupled with his dogged pursuit of revenue and deft people skills, once resulted in a budgetary coup for San Mateo. Friend and golfing partner Brian Lawther (who has a two handicap) recalls that when the Olympic Club in San Francisco hosted the US Open in 1998, it generated more merchandise revenue than any previous Open. “They were selling merchandise beyond all comprehension. John had played at the Olympic and noticed that the concessions tent was located within the boundaries of San Mateo County. He waited until the day before the start of the Open, when it was too late to relocate, before calling the State Board of Equalization.“ San Mateo County netted about $200,000 in sales tax revenue for the event.
John also points to his family as a source of pride and equanimity. His wife Greta, a lawyer, has just started a job as Chief of External Affairs for the VTA, where she is responsible for public information, legislation, intergovernmental and board relations. “I’m proud that she has chosen a career in public service,” he offers.
Son Jeff has followed John into the public sector as well, serving as Deputy City Manager of San Carlos, and daughter Jayme is a public relations manager at Con-Way, a large trucking firm. He speaks adoringly of his three granddaughters.
He loves to travel, citing Italy and China (“I first went there in the late 80s and then returned recently. What a fascinating country – the change is dramatic.”) as his favorite destinations.
As he looks to the future, John believes it will take visionary change to break the constant chafe of budget and services. “The issues of county government are the issues of society. The structural deficits in the budget need to be fixed. We are responsible for healthcare, criminal justice and social services, and we’ve got to look at each of these in new ways to make government work in the best interests of people. Government historically overestimates problems in the short term and underreacts in the long term. We’ve got to change that.
“First, we’ve got to provide healthcare to everyone who needs it, and we have to figure out how to control the costs of doing so.
“Second, we’ve got to deal with prison overcrowding. We have to look at who is in jail, why they are there, and, once they are there, how we keep them from coming back. We don’t have to look very far for the answer -- we keep putting people in jail for drugs. It’s time we stop and ask ourselves whether we are doing the right thing. We’ve been fighting a war on drugs for the last 40 years, and maybe we should just recognize we’ve lost. We ought to reserve prison cells for people who are the most dangerous to society, and treat users of addictive substances outside the criminal justice system by designing programs that get at the causes and treatment of addiction.”
“Finally, we’ve got to find ways to help families be successful. The family structure in our inner city has broken down, and our primary solution in the past has been to step in when things have fallen apart. We need to find ways to remove the stressors that keep families from success. If we can do this, we will ultimately impact our prison, health care and social services.”
As John continues to look to the future, Lawther looks to the past in defining John’s journey “In 1963, when John was beginning to envision a life as a public servant, nobody could have ever predicted anything about the way the world would be today. But John has ridden all the waves, navigated all the changes, and shown government the way to make a difference in people’s lives.”