After more than a decade at the helm of Santa Clara County, longtime public servant and now-former county executive Jeff Smith retired earlier this month, thrusting previous county counsel James Williams into the county’s top role.
On July 10, Williams was sworn in to oversee Santa Clara County’s 23,000 employees and a $11.3 billion budget at a time when the county is facing fiscal uncertainty with a growing deficit that could balloon to $158 million by the 2024-2025 fiscal year.
Williams has been with the county for almost 13 years now, starting off in the county counsel’s office before moving to the county executive’s office. In 2016, he was appointed to his most recent role as the county counsel.
The Mercury News caught up with Williams to chat more about the challenges the county is facing and what he’s most looking forward to about his new job serving the 1.9 million residents living in Santa Clara County.
Q: What do you think the biggest issues are facing the county?
A: One big one is the fiscal uncertainty that we are facing both macroeconomically but also in terms of the county’s service provision. A second is the continued need for access to and expanding the robust provision of both mental health and medical services. The county has done a tremendous amount on all those fronts for the last several years with the acquisition of O’Connor Hospital and St. Louise Regional Hospital and of course in more recent times with a more specific focus on behavioral health, but there are huge needs out there and we need to continue to find ways to expand access to services and service delivery.
There are a bunch of things that the state is doing to try to increase investments and that of course ties right into the county’s focus on supportive housing and housing access for those most vulnerable populations including the unhoused community. I think all those challenges are linked in many ways, but there are just huge needs from our safety net.
Q: How do you think your previous experience at the county has prepared you for this role?
A: I’ve had the opportunity to work with every county department as the county counsel to really partner with departments and the Board of Supervisors on every issue of greatest significance facing the county over the last seven years and before that time as a deputy county executive overseeing a number of departments. I think having had those different vantage points and having been able to grapple with the breadth of what the county does and the most significant issues, I’m in a place where I think I know many parts of this organization really well and that’s a good foundation to build on.
Q: What do you think the biggest challenge of your role is going to be?
A: The county does so much and we’re such a large and multi-faceted organization that I think the biggest challenge is likely going to be time. You can’t give attention to everything because there is so much happening so trying to really make the most efficient and effective use of the time and attention that I do have to make the most difference I can in this role I think is probably the biggest challenge.
Q: Are there any priorities or issues that you think the county should be focusing more on?
Q: Did you always know you wanted to work in the public sector?
A: I’ve known from a very early age. I was always really passionate about government and public service from the time I was quite young. I didn’t know I would end up at a county, certainly not Santa Clara County, but I have long had a passion and interest in government, and that has always been my calling.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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