Nevada County CEO Rick Haffey steps down after almost 20 years
August 21, 2018
Rick Haffey, chief executive officer of Nevada County, gets to work each day around 5 a.m.
The early start allows him to read the news, looking for trends that could affect counties. He then leaves voice mails for those he needs to talk to later in the day and checks his email.
Then, of course, one of his five bosses typically checks in with him.
At least one member of the Nevada County Board of Supervisors speaks with Haffey each day.
"On occasion, I'll talk to all five multiple times," he said.
Haffey, 65, has served as CEO since January 2003. In December he announced his retirement. His last day in the office is Aug. 29.
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Alison Lehman, assistant CEO, will succeed Haffey.
As the county's chief executive, Haffey has managerial control over vast portions of the local government's operation. In other areas, he's relied on collaboration and persuasion to accomplish his goals.
"It's more of a give and take," Haffey said.
He pointed to a deal he forged with the Sheriff's Office when Truckee formed its own police department. The Sheriff's Office was closing and wanted to use the county's old juvenile hall for storage.
Haffey questioned whether storage was the best use of the building.
At the time the county's Agricultural Department oversaw animal control operations. The arrangement wasn't working, and Haffey offered the old juvenile hall as storage if the Sheriff's Office took responsibility over animal control.
"And that's what we did," he said.
Sheriff Keith Royal said his office and Haffey always found solutions to the various issues that arose over the years.
"He was a true professional," the sheriff said. "He was a problem solver. He was a true pleasure to work with and we're going to miss him."
Haffey started working with the county in 1999 as its chief fiscal administrative officer. At the time he already had years of public service under his belt. He'd served in appointed and elected office, including a stint as mayor of South San Francisco, and worked under contract for San Diego before coming here.
"Nevada County was where I had come for Boy Scout trips as a kid," Haffey said. "I knew the area, loved the area."
A year later the assistant CEO position opened. Haffey was asked to apply and was appointed to the job.
He was assistant CEO when on Jan. 10, 2001, Scott Harlan Thorpe fatally shot Laura Wilcox, Pearlie Mae Feldman and Michael Markle. Haffey calls it the worst day during his tenure with the county.
Haffey remembers walking through the HEW Building, where Wilcox and Feldman were shot, before returning to his office and seeing his employees' facial expressions.
They'd been told to stay away from windows and were sitting on either side of a hallway. Haffey walked between the two sides of people, looking at their scared faces.
Two years later he was CEO.
Lehman, who's worked directly with Haffey for the past five years, credited him with leading the county through the Great Recession while maintaining core services despite a shrinking workforce.
"He is someone who leads with intent," Lehman said of Haffey. "He is passionate about public service. He champions citizen-centric services."
District Attorney Cliff Newell echoed Lehman.
"Through his leadership we have weathered a serious recession and have come out a stronger county largely from his efforts," Newell said in an email. "The county has been able to downsize the amount of full-time positions without jeopardizing our ability to service the community."
Supervisor Ed Scofield, chairman of the board, praised Haffey's leadership, saying the CEO has made tough decisions over the years.
"I respect him very much," Scofield said. "I think he's a great leader."
A 4-to-1 liberal-leaning Board of Supervisors changed to a 3-to-2 conservative shortly before Haffey's ascension to CEO. Haffey's boss, who'd found himself in the middle of the contentious Natural Heritage 2020 Project, agreed to resign. Haffey then found himself in the county's top spot.
A CEO must remain apolitical in a political environment. His or her five bosses — the Board of Supervisors — are elected officials. A CEO can be without a job when at least three of them want the position vacant.
The job requires savvy and experience. And, many times, it requires listening to supervisors as they test an idea, looking for the positives and negatives.
"They come in and express their opinions on a wide variety of subjects," Haffey said.
One subject — marijuana — has taken a lot of board time over the past few years. Supervisors in January 2016 implemented an outdoor grow ban. About two months ago in an open meeting they chatted with Diana Gamzon, director of the Nevada County Cannabis Alliance, about aspects of a new grow ordinance.
"I think there was a trust building," Haffey said. "I think the board trusted the cannabis industry more. There's not total trust, but I think there's the beginning."
Haffey advises the board continue to listen to the cannabis industry, and that the industry remain sensitive to community concerns, as discussions continue.
His advice to Lehman, who takes his job Sept. 9, takes a different tack.
"Balance life and work," Haffey said, "and don't burn out."
Alan Riquelmy is a reporter for The Union, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun based in Grass Valley. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4239.