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Post-Gaebler; ‘Deconstructing Government’?

Several weeks ago, I found myself passing through the Rood Center after a meeting at the Planning Department about a small project our office is working on. I saw that tables had been set up in the lobby and were laden with desserts, and county employees, their photo IDs a-dangle, were beginning to gather. 

A podium was set up, and from one of the tables hung a banner that read “Good-bye Ted” and I realized that I’d happened upon yet another defining moment in Nevada County history – the farewell ceremony for County CEO Ted Gaebler, who after four years of service had been invited to resign by the new Chairperson of the Board of Supervisors Sue Horne.

I stayed and listened to Ted speak for a few moments about what working in, and with, Nevada County has meant to him. He spoke about putting theory from his well-known book on reinventing government into practice, and his pride in the organization that had developed there over the last four years, which had proved itself able to overcome challenge, crises and adversity in managing the complex business of Nevada County.



He spoke of the people gathered in the lobby, the people who made up that organization, and of the relationships they had formed. As he spoke I watched the faces of the staff, from all the departments in that building, and I realized that they weren’t just there for the deserts – they were listening. They were paying attention.

And after Ted finished speaking, a microphone began to circulate, and one by one people Ted had worked with stepped forward to thank him, to share anecdotes, and to tell Ted about the difference he had made in their workplace and in their lives. I got that feeling, standing there in the lobby, that you get when you hear people speaking from the heart, and I began to realize something of what Ted Gaebler had accomplished in his four years at the helm of Nevada County’s government. 




I looked around and saw a lobby full of people with a lot more in common than simply where their paychecks came from. I saw a lobby full of people who were on the same team. A lobby full of people who could work together, take initiative, solve problems, and make things happen. And I began to understand, standing there in the Rood Center, something of what Ted Gaebler meant when he wrote of reinventing government.

Anyone who’s done any business recently at the Rood Center, and who remembers how it used to be, should have an idea of what reinventing government means as well. The people working behind the counters at the Rood Center are friendlier than they used to be. They tell you more clearly what you need to do and how long it will take, and how much it will cost, and if they can’t help you they tell you who can. 

Any customer knows when they walk in the door if a business is well run or not, and the Rood Center has become under Ted’s tenure a very well-run business. This is no small accomplishment, and as I listened there in the Rood Center I realized how much of the credit Ted Gaebler deserves for the changes that have occurred there.

But instead of getting an award, Ted was getting run out of town, a casualty of a 19-vote swing of the electoral pendulum.  I understand that the Board of Supervisors majority has shifted to the right, to a board more concerned with property rights and downsizing government than with planning growth and protecting the environment. But what I don’t understand is what this shift had to do with Ted Gaebler. 

Ted was an administrator and a facilitator, not a policy maker.  He could have been, and I believe would have been, as effective for a Sue Horne-led Board of Supervisors as he had been for the board led by Bruce Conklin. Indeed, I believe he was perhaps more qualified than any administrator on the planet to lead Nevada County through our state-induced budget crisis.

But Supervisor Horne had a problem with Ted, apparently. Perhaps it was his salary, which was more than Nevada County had paid previous CEOs – though not atypical for counties the size of ours, and no more than Horne and the board have agreed to pay his replacement. Or perhaps she was still steaming about the $20,000 staff retreat in Auburn – again, not a lot of money to shell out for a yearly team-building exercise for an organization as large as Nevada County’s government, but I doubt Sue Horne saw any value in what Ted was intending to accomplish with the retreat, or with any of his other “reinventing government” initiatives.

Indeed, one of my concerns with the changes in the Board of Supervisors, which is reflected in the current upheaval at the Rood Center, is that in their rush to remake county government in their own image this new board is trying to fix things that simply aren’t broken, things they might not properly understand.  Everyone who lives in Nevada County benefitted from the changes Ted Gaebler made, and was continuing to make, in the way the county does business. And everyone who lives in Nevada County stands to lose if the Rood Center lapses back into the demoralized and dysfunctional state it was in just a few years back.

Perhaps the real problem with Ted Gaebler was that he did his job too well. The very crux of last year’s electoral campaigns was the allegation that our local government was not deserving of our trust, and did not serve the common good. What could be more threatening to politicians who have built platforms based on a distrust of government than a smoothly functioning, well-run local government center?

And what does this bode for our future – how can a Board of Supervisors which seems to have such a fundamental distrust of all government, even local government, hope to provide the citizens of Nevada County with the protections and services on which we depend? Was the ‘resignation’ of Ted Gaebler simply a clash of styles and personalities, or the first chapter of a new book to be written by our new supervisors – “Deconstructing Government”?  

Only time will tell. In the meanwhile, thanks, Ted, for all your good work, which we continue to benefit from. May you find another community deserving of your talents – and one a trifle less fickle than Nevada County.

Brian Bisnett, a landscape architect and environmental planner, lives at Higgins Corner.


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