"I kept looking for somebody to solve the problem and then I realized... I am somebody.” This phrase serves as the personal mission statement for Debra McKenzie, senior deputy county administrator for San Joaquin County, California.
“San Joaquin County, and the greater central valley of California, proves to those from outside the state that something great exists between Los Angeles and San Francisco,” McKenzie said. The Great Central Valley, “the world’s bread basket,” can be seen on a topographical map, running along the center of the state from Redding in the north down to Bakersfield in the south. The area’s industry focus is agriculture, and the San Joaquin County Agriculture Commissioner reported 2013 had $2.92 billion in farming income for San Joaquin County alone.
The county boasts seven cities (approximately 921,600 total acres in 1,400 square miles) and a population of over 700,000 residents. The San Joaquin County Administrative Office functions as the operations arm of the board of supervisors and oversees administration of a $1.3 billion dollar budget and 30 departments with approximately 6,400 employees. The county seat is the city of Stockton, with a population of just over 300,000.
“What attracted me to San Joaquin County,” McKenzie said, “besides being able to stay in the central valley, was the office culture being supportive of professional development.”
The county offers all of its managers the “Human Resources Leadership Academy.” The academy consists of courses that review the eight critical dimensions necessary for successful leadership:
- Civil Service Rules
- Communication & Conflict Management
- EEO: Discrimination and Harassment Laws & Prevention
- Hiring & Interview Skills
- Introduction to the Role of the Leader
- Leave Administration
- Risk Management: What Every Manager Should Know
- SJC Performance Evaluation Guidelines.
“It’s important to role model to young people what we want them to achieve. For me, being a lifelong learner with an intention for growth and development is an important lifestyle to model. The county does an excellent job in ‘walking the talk,’ ” McKenzie said.
McKenzie’s goals and interests have always had a focus on improving outcomes for young people and creating environments where they can grow and thrive as positive, happy people. She received her bachelor of arts with honors in youth development from Concordia University, St. Paul and master’s in business administration with a healthcare management emphasis from Regis University in Denver.
McKenzie served as a senior manager in the state office of the California Friday Night Live Partnership, where she transitioned the 55-county organization from focusing solely on prevention of risky health behaviors to incorporating researched-based youth development practices. Later, as director of the Fresno County Children's Health Initiative, she directed a multimillion dollar collaborative and committee effort to ensure all children living in Fresno County have sustainable health care coverage and access to quality health care services that allow them to have a consistent medical and dental home.
After 15 years in the nonprofit world focused on managing positive youth development initiatives, McKenzie entered the public sector in 2007 as the county of Fresno's first gang task force coordinator. The county gained national recognition for its Never-Give-Up Initiative and six-city collaborative gang and juvenile delinquency prevention efforts.
In 2014 she joined the County Administrator’s Office of San Joaquin County as its senior deputy county administrator. McKenzie provides oversight to general government departments: human resources, assessor-recorder/county clerk, auditor-controller, and treasurer-tax collector; as well as health care services agencies that include behavioral health, public health, correctional health, emergency medical services, environmental health, public guardian-conservator, and veteran’s services.
McKenzie has been with San Joaquin County fewer than 100 days, and her focus to date has been learning the ropes of her new community by doing a complete review and update of the Administrative Policies and Procedures, some of which have not been updated since their origination in 1983.
McKenzie says that while it’s not the most inspiring topic, it is imperative to “our success in improving quality of life, being good stewards of public dollars, and ensuring we carry out our public responsibilities as efficiently and effectively as possible. It’s also offering me the opportunity to get to know and meet all the department heads, lead conversations, and discuss processes that have often been placed on the back burner.”
From the mindset that “inconsistency kills credibility,” McKenzie maintains that the midst of a controversial issue “is not the time to discover that policies are not up to date with current practice, or speak contrary to your ordinances. We want to make sure the public can trust we are doing our best, and I can look to the ICMA Code of Ethics as we analyze the basic policies and procedures of local government.”
IDEAL: Leaders of Today and Tomorrow
Institute for the Development of Emerging Area Leaders (IDEAL) is a program for “Cultivating the Valley’s Leaders.” This six-month leadership opportunity has produced a dynamic cadre of more than 250 graduates in the Central Valley region, representing the diversity of the area and equipping a network with awareness of critical issues facing the region.
In 2011, program graduates came together and formulated the community benefit organization IDEAL: LTT, McKenzie is currently board president and one of the founders of the extension enterprise, which engages IDEAL graduates as the Valley’s next generation of decision-makers. McKenzie’s own experience in the program showed her the ways a profession in local government could allow her to have a positive impact on her community.
As a result of her IDEAL training, she decided to pursue a position with Fresno County to lead its first comprehensive effort to address gang violence. McKenzie’s next project with the county was to hold a county-wide youth summit, which resulted in a data-driven, interactive process that identified one single priority area of focus for every youth-serving agency in the area, so that resources could be aligned for collaborative action.
Local Government and Engagement with ICMA
Recognizing pertinent current challenges to the local government management profession such as the economy, jobs, and succession planning, McKenzie believes an even more basic quality is still a pressing issue: communication.
“Because local governments are generally the closest to the community and delivery of services, it is imperative that we tell our stories clearly, effectively, and often,” McKenzie said. “It’s important that we communicate using the new technology available to us, but really a means to which our communities respond best so we can engage, educate, and serve. It’s often the one-word misunderstanding, the ill-timed agenda item, or simply the lack of good communication, both with the public and among ourselves, that leaves us not being able to focus on the real goal of service. We get mired down in resolving issues created by poor communication (or worse, no communication at all).
“I think sometimes there are so many fires to put out in order to serve the public we forget we are part of the public – we need to stop and ask how would we access this information if we weren’t county employees, would we know where to turn or who to contact, and how can we make local government more accessible and engaging,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie is a relatively new ICMA member, and has already dived into the organization’s resources.
“My government experience on the county level has primarily been focused on the human services side of operations, and ICMA gives me an opportunity to connect with fields that I don’t normally work with, such as land use, construction, facilities management, etc.,” McKenzie explained.
McKenzie was a recipient of the 2014 Workplace Diversity Scholarship to attend the ICMA Annual Conference in Charlotte, and she is a member of the fall 2016 class of the Emerging Leaders Development Program.
A self-proclaimed military-brat raised primarily in Arlington, Texas, McKenzie lives in Fresno with her husband Charles McKenzie, a Fresno native and professional geologist with the California Department of Water Resources. She is also an AmeriCorps VISTA Alumni, where she worked to improve youth access and implementation of technology in central California as part of the Central Valley Digital Network.