Becoming the Best County in America
For new Stanislaus County CEO Stan Risen, the story of his administration is right on his business card.
“It’s all in the vision statement,” says Risen, pointing to the back of the card, where Stanislaus County’s Vision Statement and Core Values are collected. “We want to be ‘A County that is respected for its service in the community and is known as the best in America.’ It’s an aggressive vision, but to us it’s about continuing that journey to become one of the best counties in the country.”
He isn’t just talking. From the moment Risen hands over his card, it’s clear how strongly he is motivated to help the County he loves become an even better community.
Risen is a 26 year veteran of Stanislaus County government who has worked in the CEO’s office since 1999. This past August, Risen was appointed interim CEO after former CEO Monica Nino accepted a management position with San Joaquin County. Risen was officially named Nino’s successor at the end of 2013, but he has wasted no time in making the office his own.
“I’m following in the footsteps of two great CEOs,” says Risen. “In some ways, I see [my administration] just continuing something that’s been set in motion by my predecessors. But I’m fortunate that I’m coming in at a time when we’re seeing some slight improvement in the economy. Hopefully we can start rebuilding and refocusing and get back to pursuing that vision of being the best County in America.”
Risen admits that while his aspirations are lofty, he and the rest of Stanislaus County’s leadership are facing distinct obstacles.
One of the most pressing challenges facing Stanislaus County is water. With this year’s drought multiplying the problems created by nearly two decades of overdrafted water supplies, Risen and other Stanislaus County leaders are grappling with some major issues. These issues have long-lasting implications for citizens and the area’s largest industry-agriculture.
“This is not an arena that [the government] has typically been involved with. But if not the county, then who?” asks Risen. “We want to bring all the key stakeholders to the table and let them consider all the alternatives. We have the ability to bring together farmers, irrigation districts, well drillers and the cities and become a facilitator. We just have to ensure we do this in a fair, well thought out and inclusive manner.”
Additionally, Risen is motivated to take on Stanislaus County’s systemic issues with crime, low graduation rates and reliance on public aid. “Our job is to help create a more sustainable, healthy environment for our community. Right now, if you include
Medi-Cal, 1 in 2.7 people in the county are on some form of public assistance. That is not reflective of a sustainable economy. Finding a way to turn the corner, to improve graduation rates, to increase employment and to help reduce the dependency on public aid is really a very high priority with this County.”
“A lot of these problems government can’t just fix, but we hope to be a facilitator that helps the community get involved,” says Risen, adding that this push toward community involvement is modeled in the long-running Mentorship program championed by Assistant CEO Keith Boggs in which County employees can volunteer to spend a few hours each week helping kids who are struggling with school. “We are very proud of the employees who donate their lunch hours to help these kids.”
Risen adds that it’s this sort of selflessness and community support that sets Stanislaus County apart. “The reality is, I live here because I choose to live here. And I like living here. This is a great community with a deep and rich heritage and it’s time we started touting some of the great things we have to offer here in Stanislaus County!”
New Chairman of the Board of Supervisors
Risen isn’t the only County leader who is settling into a new position this year.
Nine-year veteran Board of Supervisors member Jim DeMartini has recently taken on the role of Chairman for the Board.
DeMartini, who is a third generation farmer in Stanislaus County, says that Risen’s stated values of respect, responsibility and fairness—three of the Core Values for Stanislaus County—are also central to the Board of Supervisors efficacy.
“We have a great board,” says DeMartini. “We get along well, we respect each others’ opinions and we’re all pulling in the same direction. That doesn’t mean we vote all the same, but we do understand where each of the others is coming from and respect those positions.”
“In our board, once we vote on something that’s the end of it,” adds DeMartini. “We accept it and go on like professionals, we don’t hold grudges. We just want to do what’s best for Stanislaus County, and there’s a lot of work to be done.”
DeMartini added that another key factor of his approach to his new role is his adherence to the lessons learned during the economic downturn. “We were in survival mode for a long time, but we became a very lean and efficient organization because of it. We’ve just learned how to do things differently, and we’ve made it work. And I’m not anxious to change it back,” said DeMartini.
According to Risen, it’s these values of community support and lean governance that will ultimately help these two new leaders make a real, lasting difference in the County.
“Organizations have different cultures, just like people have different personalities, and it begins at the top,” says Risen. “It starts with having a very professional Board of Supervisors who can disagree without being disagreeable, and who stay on top of issues and are very concerned about serving the public. And having an employee base who are constantly looking for partnership opportunities and are engaged with our vision and values.”
“Those values work their way down through the ranks and help us create a culture we can be proud of,” concludes Risen. “They help us continue that journey toward being the best.”