The Board of Supervisors Tuesday formally approved a three-year employment agreement with new Riverside County Chief Executive Officer Jeff Van Wagenen, who was seated without public comment or opposition.
Van Wagenen, 48, of Riverside, a county employee for the last 10 years, was selected for the top administrative post in a unanimous vote by the board in closed session Thursday, according to the Executive Office.
“After doing a competitive, nationwide recruitment, I am pleased that one of our Riverside County residents will be our next CEO,” Board Chairwoman Karen Spiegel said last week. “Jeff has been a driving force within the county and built a strong reputation for collaborative solutions to tough problems.”
Van Wagenen stepped forward as a candidate for the CEO position after George Johnson announced his retirement in September. Johnson left Dec. 17, and between then and last week, Transportation & Land Management Agency Director Juan Perez served as interim CEO.
Van Wagenen took his seat at the beginning of the board meeting without any discussion by the supervisors, who signed off on his employment package during a block vote on multiple items.
His three-year contract took effect immediately and will expire on Feb. 8, 2024. The terms specify an annual salary of $325,000, with allowances for vacation time and county-covered health and life insurance benefits, as well as pension coverage.
The agreement can be terminated at any time, but Van Wagenen would be entitled to a severance package that effectively pays him whatever he would be owed in the time left under the contract, according to the Department of Human Resources.
Instead of quickly naming a successor to Johnson, the board approved a $50,000 contract to retain a Sacramento-based executive recruiting firm to conduct a search for prospects, and in early January, eight finalists, including Van Wagenen, were interviewed.
Prior to entering county service, he was a defense attorney and was part of the county registry of lawyers able to be appointed in lieu of public defenders when the latter had conflicts or case loads that prohibited them from taking clients, including those facing capital murder charges.
Van Wagenen was added to the public payroll in 2011 when then-District Attorney Paul Zellerbach hired him to be his chief of staff. Zellerbach left office in December 2014, and Van Wagenen was tapped to fill several positions in the county Economic Development Agency.
Since then, he has worked in other capacities, most recently in the assistant county CEO role overseeing public safety agencies.
“The hard work of the county is done in our departments everyday by our dedicated staff,” he said. “I am honored to serve the board on behalf of the 2.5 million people who choose to call Riverside County home.”
The position requires directing all budgetary matters, recommending and implementing policy changes and resolving inter-departmental conflicts.
The county is facing financial challenges stemming from the public health lockdowns that have eaten into tax receipts which would otherwise be available as general fund revenue. The reserve pool has already been whittled down from $259 million at the start of the current fiscal year to $218 million.
During budget hearings in June, there was open discussion about the potential for layoffs by the start of fiscal year 2021-22. However, details are still scarce, and more information is expected to be presented during the midyear budget report due soon.
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