Mike Geniella’s incisive voice and watchful eye have been aimed at Mendocino County for many decades as a long-standing reporter for the Press Democrat and the spokesman for Mendocino County District Attorney’s Office. Now retired, Geniella finds the writing habit hard to shake. We’re excited to host a column from him sharing his thoughts, comments, and concerns about life here in Mendocino County.
Carmel Angelo shrugs off a chorus of criticism as she nears her final day as CEO of the County of Mendocino, the region’s largest employer.
“The day will come when the political frenzy dies down, and my accomplishments over the last 15 years as a county executive will be seen fairly,” said Angelo.
During a two-hour interview this week, Angelo’s reactions ran the gamut. Her responses were quick and often witty. She frequently flashed her trademark smile, but the look in her eyes was sometimes piercing. The eyes hint at the toughness Angelo is known for behind closed doors.
Angelo, 65, is the county’s first woman chief executive. She believes some criticism directed at her stems from gender bias.
“Honestly, would a man be so forcefully described as vengeful, power-hungry, or vindicative?” asked Angelo.
Angelo brushes aside critics’ complaints. She most recently was described by a local columnist in print as a ‘tough old broad.’
“What can I say? I know my job, and I do what it takes to get things done,” she said.
During her tenure, Angelo forged a strong central administration that she fears may be dismantled after her departure. “You can’t run an organization this large based on political changes every four years. The Executive Office has to be strong to be effective.”
Angelo said debate over whether the county Board of Supervisors should continue with a CEO type position or revert to what is often seen as a less powerful chief administrative officer (CAO) position is irrelevant.
“It takes three county supervisor votes to get anything done no matter what the title is. People seem to forget that the real power rests with the Board of Supervisors, as it should,” said Angelo.
Angelo said the fact that she has won statewide awards in recognition of her work on behalf of a small rural county eases the brunt of local criticism directed at her.
“I have always had the best interests of Mendocino County at heart, and I am grateful that is recognized beyond our borders.”
Angelo acknowledges there have been failures, led by the county’s inability to produce a satisfactory regulatory plan for the local cannabis industry.
“We missed the opportunity to become a statewide model,” said Angelo about a county with a long history of marijuana cultivation.
“There are people who did not want county government to embrace legalization of marijuana, but the fact is cannabis has been part of our economy for decades. Car dealers, hardware stores, and restaurant owners certainly know that.”
Other issues that have challenged Angelo were a series of wildfires that wreaked havoc in local communities, a disputed consolidation of two key county departments, a tug-of-war with new county Sheriff Matt Kendall, and the fallout from a pandemic that disrupted daily county operations.
“Covid restrictions have prevented the current Board of Supervisors from being regularly engaged with county personnel at all levels,” said Angelo.
Angelo scoffs at the notion that she uses the pandemic to seal off staff communication with board members as part of a ‘power play’ by her Executive Office.
“That is just not true. It does not work that way, and never has. People know how to get through to supervisors and administrators if they really want,” said Angelo.
As she prepares to step down, Angelo said she is especially satisfied that the county, facing near bankruptcy in 2010, is today on firm financial footing with $20 million in reserves in face of an annual operating budget of $340 million.
“I leave knowing the situation today is much healthier than when I was appointed CEO in 2010,” said Angelo.
Angelo, an Ohio native and nurse by profession, arrived in Mendocino County from San Diego in 2007 when she was hired to become director of Health and Human Services. Two years later, Angelo became Assistant CEO and then in 2010 was appointed to the top post by the then Board of Supervisors.
Angelo’s first act in face of a looming fiscal crisis was to impose austerity measures on county staff and reduce the then payroll of 1,400 employees. She mandated 10 percent salary cut for workers, and personally reduced her salary by 20 percent at the same time. The pay cuts eventually were restored, and salary increases under employee union contracts eventually returned. Today Angelo’s salary and benefits package totals $329,734 annually, according to Transparent California.com.
Angelo cites her budgetary successes, but she readily concedes there are lingering unresolved high profile management issues.
Topping that list is the uncertain fate of a local cannabis industry that “We had hoped would be a significant new source of tax revenue,” said Angelo.
Angelo said it is a big disappointment that “We couldn’t find a regulatory path forward, and now everyone is hurting.”
Angelo said it is now painfully clear that county leadership including the Board of Supervisors missed an opportunity for Mendocino County to have become a model statewide after cannabis was legalized.
Instead, Angelo acknowledges that a county where marijuana has been an underground economic engine for decades ended up with a regulatory “debacle” on its hands.
“We failed to seize the moment and even after months of review and debate we still couldn’t figure out how best to grow our own local industry. We will be paying a big price for this failure for some time.”
Angelo believes the county’s failed attempts to forge a workable program is the result of trying to appease competing interests.
“We looked to our agricultural department when the -regulatory oversight probably should have been under county planning guidelines. We wanted to bring in small local growers, but we also needed to encourage a processing industry, and make it possible for both to co-exist,” said Angelo.
Angelo said only three board members were involved at the critical juncture.
Former county Supervisor Dan Hamburg recused himself from the process because of his family’s involvement in marijuana cultivation. There also was a board vacancy in the Third District at the same time.
Angelo said Hamburg’s role was missed.
“Supervisor Hamburg understood public policy and the cannabis industry. His absence with the development of the cannabis ordinance is still evidenced by the multiple ongoing attempts to make a failing industry survive in an environment riddled with too many regulations.”
Angelo’s tenure, however, has involved grappling with more than failed marijuana initiatives.
Newly named Sheriff Matt Kendall clashed with Angelo over his personal demand for private legal representation he claimed he needed in a tug of war over his department’s internal communication system.
Kendall’s refusal to allow a county audit of his department’s operations was the final straw.
Angelo said 10 years ago retired Sheriff Tom Allman agreed to such an audit, and “it ended up supporting his contention that the department had a serious shortage of deputies.”
“Why won’t the current sheriff allow an outside look into the department’s operation,” asks Angelo.
Then there is the high profile falling out with former Supervisor John McCowen, once one of Angelo’s biggest political allies.
“I feel like I have gone through a divorce,” said Angelo about their public spat.
Angelo credits District Attorney David Eyster for helping to ease tensions between her and McCowen and end a standoff over his access to office files. “David listened to both of us, and he helped John and I find our way out.”
While McCowen continues to publicly denounce Angelo for her ‘power plays,’ the departing CEO praises him, and former Superior Carre Brown’s “constant teamwork to do what is best for our community.”
Angelo also singles out former county Supervisors John Pinches, and Michael Delbar for their honesty and dedication. “There was never any doubt where they stood on the issues,” she said.
Angelo also cites retired Sheriff Tom Allman and his advocacy for Measure B, a sweeping taxpayer funded mental health program that was passed by a two-thirds majority.
Measure B plans stalled, and the main thrust of providing law enforcement assistance in handling cases involving mental health issues have yet to be fully implemented but Angelo said, “I am confident we will get there.”
Angelo said her record will stand the test of time.
“Mistakes were made but I am leaving with the satisfaction I have done a decent job for the people of Mendocino County.”
Angelo said she will spend her final month on the job helping interim county CEO Darcie Antle transition into the position.
She is relocating to be with family in San Diego but will be in and out of town through July while she finishes, including the sale of her Ukiah house.
“No, I don’t live in Marin, or have a plane that flies me to San Diego and back,” quipped Angelo.
“As a matter of fact, since 2010 I have lived in a blue-collar neighborhood at the south end of town where few people know or care that I am the county’s CEO.”
Angelo is confident history will give her high marks.
“I have always had Mendocino County’s best interests at heart, and whatever I do in the future and wherever I am, I will have memories of living in this rural community with me. For that I am grateful,” said Angelo.