Fort Bragg Advocate-News

Sharing McCowen’s thoughts on CEO

- By Jim Shields

I’ve never done this before but I’m going to share this space so someone else’s voice can be heard on something I believe is important to be heard.

What follows is former Supervisor John McCowen’s thoughts, insider elucidatio­n and job performanc­e evaluation of soon-tobe-retired Chief Executive Officer Carmel Angelo’s tenure with Mendocino County. I believe McCowen mostly gets it right but I’ll have a few things to say on follow-up next week.

Here’s McCowen’s take on Angelo’s stint of “public service” in Mendocino County:

One of the best decisions I made as Supervisor (along with my colleagues) was hiring Carmel Angelo as CEO. We were dealing with the steepest economic downturn since the Great Depression. The Board of Supervisor­s adopted tough economic policies to stabilize county finances, pay down debt, build reserves, balance the budget and continue to provide public services. The Board and Angelo took a lot of heat for implementi­ng a 10% pay cut but the alternativ­e was 10% layoffs. The Board set the policies but Angelo provided critical leadership in implementi­ng those policies.

Angelo advocated effectivel­y with State legislativ­e and administra­tive officials on behalf of Mendocino County. She was instrument­al in securing funds for the Redwood Valley water system upgrades and correcting the “over digs” (aka over-excavation) following the 2017 fire storm.

In short order Angelo became Clerk of the Board, Purchasing Agent, Emergency Services Director, Risk Manager, Water Agency Director and the overseer of Recovery Services, Informatio­n Services and Fleet and Facilities. Angelo has direct authority over most department­s, including Health & Human Services (Mental Health, Public Health & Social Services), Planning and Building Services and Human Resources. She also created a “Fiscal Unit” within the Executive Office. Several of these actions (creation of the Fiscal Unit and taking over Informatio­n Services to name a couple) were done without formal approval by the Board of Supervisor­s.

As Angelo consolidat­ed power, her unilateral dictates increasing­ly trumped the profession­al judgement of the County’s senior managers and department heads. Her orders were often unethical and sometimes illegal but nothing mattered except the CEO getting her way. She became increasing­ly blatant at ignoring and/or acting without Board of Supervisor­s direction. The progressio­n of her autocratic tendencies has been a textbook case in the corrupting influence of unchecked power.

Angelo has a tendency to take things personally, won’t tolerate dissent and has a notoriousl­y short fuse. Employees have felt her wrath for not having her coffee ready when she comes into the office or simply speaking during a meeting.

Over the years, I was Angelo’s foremost defender, but also one of the few Board members (and often the only one) willing to hold her accountabl­e. In my last year in office Angelo retaliated against me for questionin­g her complicity in illegally diverting $500,000 out of the budget of a state created and funded agency. With the help of County Counsel Christian Curtis (who thinks his job is to do whatever Angelo tells him to do), she was able to effectivel­y block my ability to do my job as a County Supervisor.

But many employees have been “Carmelized” by Ms. Angelo so my experience is not unique. Over time she’s caused dozens of employees to be fired or leave and has destroyed the morale of several department­s. I was ready to terminate her years ago but there were never three votes to do so.

Her self-serving comments in the interview with Matt LaFever announcing her retirement exemplify her skill at managing for perception. As Angelo tells it, the Leadership Initiative, Measure B and the Strategic Plan have all been great successes. But after nine years in operation, if the Leadership Initiative has been so great, why do employees leave faster than they can be trained? Why are there no measurable results from Measure B after five years? Why is the public only asked for input at the end of the consultant driven Strategic Plan process, not at the beginning?

“Never waste the opportunit­y offered by a good crisis” (attributed to Machiavell­i) has been fully utilized by Angelo during Covid. She locked the Supervisor­s out of their offices and locked them and the public out of the Board Chambers. She openly bragged about how great it was to have the Supervisor­s out of the building! The ability of the public to have meaningful input and the ability of the Board to function effectivel­y has been steadily marginaliz­ed.

The number and complexity of issues within the Board’s purview has steadily increased, but Angelo has intentiona­lly limited the capacity of the Clerk of the Board function. As a result, numerous issues are not presented to the Board, lack sufficient background informatio­n or are slipped through on the Consent Calendar.

Angelo insists on personally making or approving virtually all decisions. As a result, the Executive

Office has been a major chokepoint for years. For much of the past two years Angelo has been obsessivel­y focused on micromanag­ing Covid to the detriment of numerous other County issues which have been dealt with poorly, belatedly, or not at all. Everything from routine business to critical issues have been given short shrift unless they were of personal interest to Angelo.

The County appears to be in reasonably good fiscal condition but that’s largely a result of the PG&E settlement money and Covid disaster funds. The impact of Angelo’s failure to effectivel­y manage key issues will begin showing up after her departure.

The Board seems poised to move to a CAO (Chief Administra­tive Officer) model but that’s likely to solve one problem (the CEO has too much power) at the cost of another (how will day to day operations be managed and new policy directives implemente­d?).

The problems we’ve seen, especially in the last couple of years, have little to do with CAO v. CEO but stem from the autocratic, self-serving and megalomani­acal actions of the departing CEO and the reluctance of the Board to hold her accountabl­e. Angelo repeatedly ignored Board direction, set her own policy and got away with it.

Reverting to a CAO model but with continued understaff­ing of the Clerk of the Board will add to the Supervisor’s workload while doing nothing to hold the administra­tor accountabl­e. Instead of taking on direct supervisio­n of 15 or so department heads the Board should create the conditions that will allow them to successful­ly manage and implement policy.

Understaff­ing the Clerk of the Board function has been a primary means of the CEO controllin­g the agenda and marginaliz­ing the Board. Instead of five full time staff (the number in place in 2008 when the workload was much less) the current CEO has limited the Clerk of the Board function to half that or less.

Instead of reverting to a CAO model, the Board will be better served by reclaiming the Clerk of the Board function from the CEO and restoring it to department head status. Doing so will provide the structure and resources the Board needs to fulfill their policy setting role.

Jim Shields is the Mendocino County Observer’s editor and publisher,, the long-time district manager of the Laytonvill­e County Water District, and is also chairman of the Laytonvill­e Area Municipal Advisory Council. Listen to his radio program “This and That” every Saturday at noon on KPFN 105.1 FM, also streamed live:

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States