2009.07.19: July 19, 2009: Headlines: COS - Nigeria: City Government: Sacramento Bee: Nigeria RPCV Terry Schutten is the most powerful man in Sacramento you know nothing about

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Nigeria: Peace Corps Nigeria : Peace Corps Nigeria: Newest Stories: 2009.04.11: April 11, 2009: Headlines: COS - Nigeria: City Government: Sacramento Bee: Nigeria RPCV Terry Schutten writes: Step by step: County handles crisis carefully : 2009.07.19: July 19, 2009: Headlines: COS - Nigeria: City Government: Sacramento Bee: Nigeria RPCV Terry Schutten is the most powerful man in Sacramento you know nothing about

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Nigeria RPCV Terry Schutten is the most powerful man in Sacramento you know nothing about

Nigeria RPCV Terry Schutten is the most powerful man in Sacramento you know nothing about

For 10 years he has served as the county executive overseeing social programs for 1.4 million people, municipal services for a population larger than the city of Sacramento and growth decisions affecting 1,000 square miles. He has worked to expand the airport, complete the massive Freeport Regional Water Project and increase neighborhood participation in planning. He wants to be remembered for those accomplishments. But some current and former officials suggest Schutten instead will be remembered for presiding over the worst budget in Sacramento County history, one in which programs were gutted and hundreds of workers were laid off. "He's going to be tagged with that regardless of whether or not he had anything to do with it," said Jim Hunt, acting head of the Countywide Services Agency. "I hate to say it. It's not fair."

Nigeria RPCV Terry Schutten is the most powerful man in Sacramento you know nothing about

Bad budget haunts Sacramento County executive

By Robert Lewis
rlewis@sacbee.com

Published: Sunday, Jul. 19, 2009

Chances are, Terry Schutten is the most powerful man in Sacramento you know nothing about.

For 10 years he has served as the county executive overseeing social programs for 1.4 million people, municipal services for a population larger than the city of Sacramento and growth decisions affecting 1,000 square miles.

He has worked to expand the airport, complete the massive Freeport Regional Water Project and increase neighborhood participation in planning.

He wants to be remembered for those accomplishments.

But some current and former officials suggest Schutten instead will be remembered for presiding over the worst budget in Sacramento County history, one in which programs were gutted and hundreds of workers were laid off.

"He's going to be tagged with that regardless of whether or not he had anything to do with it," said Jim Hunt, acting head of the Countywide Services Agency. "I hate to say it. It's not fair."

Schutten, 66, came to Sacramento County's top job in 1999. At the time he was county manager in Ramsey County, Minn.

Bob Thomas, the previous county executive, had resigned to become Sacramento city manager, and Robert Ryan, county counsel, was filling in on an interim basis.

Schutten, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria, was a marked departure from Thomas, a strong-willed leader who ruffled feathers with his tough demeanor, current and former officials said.

Schutten a large, rosy-cheeked man with a boyish grin who often laughs at his own jokes seemed like an affable, open-minded executive with good experience, said Illa Collin, a supervisor from 1979 to early 2007.

He had worked in Minnesota for 13 years and, before that, in Pennsylvania. For a time he was the project manager for the National Association of Counties, which is where some Sacramento supervisors became familiar with his work.

"They had seen him at the national level and how he handled himself," Collin said.

Schutten said his transition to California was smooth. The biggest challenge was learning about water issues.

Early on, Schutten worked with the city and East Bay Municipal Utility District to create the Freeport water system, a $1 billion project to supply water to the East Bay and central Sacramento County.

Besides that project, Schutten lists open space preservation and land conservation as his biggest accomplishments.

Others agree, citing Schutten's commitment to the American River Parkway, Deer Creek Hills and the South Sacramento Habitat Conservation Plan.

The $1 billion upgrade and expansion of Sacramento International Airport is also on most everyone's list.

'More of a backroom guy'

While tangible accomplishments such as buildings or infrastructure are easy to list, it's harder to pin down Schutten's own assessment of his reach as county executive.

He rarely gives interviews, often lets his staff talk about projects, and is little known outside the seventh floor of Sacramento's downtown County Administration Building. He doesn't speak off the cuff to the supervisors during meetings; he's more likely to address the board from prepared statements.

"Bob Thomas (Schutten's predecessor) seemed to be more of a personality," said Ted Gaebler, Rancho Cordova's city manager. "Terry is more of a backroom guy."

Schutten acknowledges being uncomfortable in front of cameras. He said elected supervisors should be the ones taking credit and acting as the county's public face.

He can't escape the spotlight, though. The souring economy and collapse of Wall Street and declining tax revenues pulled Schutten to front and center as Sacramento County found itself in a budget crisis.

As CEO, Schutten has taken the brunt of the blame for a budget that forced the county to send layoff notices to nearly 800 workers.

"We've been through the worst budget I've seen in my 36 years here," Hunt said. "When it came time to make the tough calls, he made them. Like them or not, he took the responsibility."

Critics cite decision delays

Criticism, however, has centered less on Schutten's final decisions and more on the process that he deferred making the tough calls for too long.

"Delaying making deeper cuts to get our fiscal house in order has left us in a position where we have to take down almost everything we do beyond what's good for the community," said Penelope Clarke, the former head of countywide services. Clarke, who retired last year, unsuccessfully vied for Schutten's job 10 years ago.

Behind-the-scenes grumbling over the county's inaction in dealing with the worsening budget turned into a full-on mutiny in April when Sheriff John McGinness asked supervisors to fire Schutten.

McGinness and other department heads complained they couldn't get basic budget data and decried the lack of transparency.

Schutten said for many years officials painted dire budget pictures early in the process as part of what he called "the crying-wolf syndrome."

The county always found money, however, which led to cynicism, he added. As a result, he tried to shift the culture to one where he would release figures only when the numbers were real, not speculative. It just so happened to coincide with this recession, he said.

"In this case the sky was falling, and it's continuing to fall," Schutten said.

No regrets for 'lightning rod'

Former county officials say Schutten receives too much blame. They insist that supervisors have ultimate control, and if department heads didn't get the necessary information, supervisors should have pressed for a broader discussion.

"The board should have been asking a heck of a lot more questions," Collin said.

Gaebler said it's common for people to try to place all the blame on an administrator. It's much harder to blame five people the board of supervisors than one.

"It's our job to act as lightning rods and take the flak for elected officials. It seems he's done a really good job of being a lightning rod," Gaebler said.

Schutten offered no regrets for his performance.

"I don't think there's anything I could have done differently," he said. "I think we responded as quickly as we could, based on sound facts."

He said more changes are needed, that the county and cities should consolidate some functions such as planning and road maintenance.

Schutten is optimistic about Sacramento County's future but said it must diversify its economy. "We're totally dependent on growth and what goes on in commercial development," he said.

As for his own future, Schutten declined to comment on persistent rumors that he'll retire soon.

"I'm going to be here for a while and then I'm going to do something else," he said, declining to elaborate.

When he retires, Schutten said, his legacy will be a decade of work not a bad economic cycle.

"The Freeport system, the airport system they're going to be there a lot longer than this budget," Schutten said. "Those are all pretty big changes that are going to be here a lot longer than I am."




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