A longtime Santa Clara County attorney will become its new CEO, commanding one of the region’s most powerful local government posts for a region with enormous economic clout as the tech capital of the world.
James R. Williams, who has served as county counsel since 2016, was appointed to the position by the closed-door board of supervisors on Oct. 17 and was formally confirmed 4-1 at Tuesday’s open board meeting. Williams, 38, will replace Jeff Smith, who served as county executive since 2009.
Despite the historic nomination — Williams will be the youngest county executive in Santa Clara County history and also the first person of color to hold the position — it has not been without controversy. Some county officials said the nomination process lacked transparency, leading one supervisor to vote no at Tuesday’s meeting.
The role of CEO oversees the county’s 1.9 million residents, more than 20,000 county employees and a gargantuan budget of $11 billion, comparable to the gross domestic product of the Bahamas. Unlike neighboring counties, Santa Clara also has an extensive health care infrastructure that includes three hospitals.
Williams will work closely with the five-member Board of Directors, helping to implement policy and budget decisions while managing 42 different county offices.
“I’m extremely honored and excited,” Williams said in an interview. “I am absolutely delighted to take on this new challenge.”
Smith, who will step down on July 1 next year, described Williams as very talented.
“James has a lot of experience. So I think it’s a good choice. Smith, 68, said at Tuesday’s board meeting where he also announced he had developed Parkinson’s disease, a brain disorder that primarily affects motor skills. He said it did not affect his duties as county manager.
The current CEO also said Williams’ appointment helps address the disruption other county departments have recently faced. On Monday, Sheriff Laurie Smith announced she would retire immediately following a civil bribery trial. Williams’ salary will be set 10% above the county COO, or $460,373.
While the board formalized Williams’ appointment in mid-October, Smith’s October 27 retirement announcement made no mention that the board had already found a replacement.
Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who is running for mayor of San Jose, voted against Williams’ nomination, although she said she thought he was qualified for the role.
“I think we’re missing an opportunity to engage with the community,” Chavez said, at one point suggesting delaying the appointment for two weeks so more members of the public can chime in.
Longtime Santa Clara County assessor Larry Stone, who has held the position since 1994, said the lack of public discussion about who would replace Smith was “totally inconsistent” with what has happened in the past. .
“My concern is that this is not an open, transparent, deliberative process,” Stone said.
He said he didn’t necessarily oppose Williams as the new CEO, but thought there should be more public deliberation for such an extremely important position.
County Supervisory District 1 running contestant Johnny Khamis called the process “disgusting.”
“He might be the best guy for the job,” said Khamis, a former San Jose board member. “They haven’t even had a public discussion about why he’s the best for the job. Why can’t we get a community organization involved? What are they afraid of?”
Both Williams and Smith deferred questions about the hiring process to board members, though Williams said decisions about board appointments are “still behind closed doors.”
At Monday’s meeting, supervisor Susan Ellenberg defended the decision.
“The board of directors sets the direction, tone and policy of this organization,” she said. “And we do it in public. We make all personnel decisions regarding any of the positions appointed by the Board of Directors behind closed doors pursuant to the Ralph M. Brown Act.
Mike Wasserman did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for Supervisor Otto Lee’s office declined to comment. A spokesperson for Chavez’s office referred to supervisors’ comments at Tuesday’s meeting, while a spokesperson for Joe Simitian referred to a press release sent Tuesday by the county.
The child of immigrants from Iran and India and raised by a single mother, Williams earned his law degree from Stanford University. Williams’ career in the county began in 2010 when he was hired as a social justice and impact litigation officer and later became an assistant county councillor.
During Williams’ six years as head of the county council office, he oversaw litigation against several Trump administration executive orders and inherited legal challenges against pharmaceutical and lead paint companies.
More recently, Williams worked with the county health department to implement public health orders during the COVID-19 pandemic that were among the strictest in the region — and at times controversial. The county helped push other Bay Area leaders to be the first in the country to lock down 6 million residents and banned organized sports from gathering for a brief period at the end of 2020.
The county has also taken legal action against businesses and other entities that have refused to comply with their pandemic health orders.
That strategy, led by Williams, resulted in a protracted legal battle between the county and Calvary Chapel in San Jose, which flouted county health requirements at the height of the pandemic and racked up millions in fines.
In late September, Williams’ office filed a petition with the California Supreme Court asking that they review a lower court ruling that released the church from paying a quarter of a million dollars in court fees. contempt of court. The court has until the end of November to rule on whether to take up the case.