Managing a Giant

by Jeremy Loudenback

Bill FukiokaFor William T. Fujioka, a distinguished 40-year career in public service began in humble circumstances.

In 1972, Fujioka started working in the public sector as a custodian for Santa Cruz County. But after rising through the ranks in jobs for both the City of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County, the Boyle Heights-born Fujioka was hired in 2007 to fill the county’s top management job, chief executive officer for a jurisdiction that is more populous than 43 states.

From 2007 until his retirement in November, Fujioka was charged with administering the nation’s largest county, a vast and ethnically diverse expanse that is governed by the five-member Board of Supervisors. This year, Los Angeles County boasted a budget of  $26 billion for nearly 11 million residents spread across more than 4,000 square miles. With an annual budget of $37 million, the Los Angeles County CEO’s office is charged with overseeing more than 100,000 county employees, 31 departments, and 88 municipalities (along with several unincorporated areas).

On Tuesday, January 27, Fujioka will share his experiences from a lengthy and ground-breaking career in public administration as part of the Bedrosian Center’s Lunch with a Leader program. Fujioka was the first person to serve as CEO of Los Angeles County; the Board of Supervisors created the position after it expanded the responsibilities of the county’s administrative office in order to better direct the county’s employees and services. Fujioka also represents the first Asian-Pacific Islander to work in the county’s top administrative position.

Prior to his time as head of Los Angeles County, Fujioka served as the chief administrative officer for the City of Los Angeles from 1999 to 2006. He also worked as an examinations analyst, personnel officer, administrator in the Department of Health Services, and chief executive officer of High Desert Hospital/Antelope Valley Cluster for Los Angeles County before his stint with the City of Los Angeles.

Fujioka has said that among his proudest achievements was his fiscal stewardship of Los Angeles County during the Great Recession. Across the country, the public sector struggled to deal with slashed budgets, widespread layoffs, and a turbulent political climate, but Fujioka steered the county through the period with relatively minor setbacks, thanks to the county’s political leadership and labor partnerships.

“We did better than any other city of county in not only the state, I think in the U.S.,” Fujioka said. “We had no layoffs, no furloughs, no significant drops in programs or services. We had a great partnership with labor. All of our employees took zero raises — not that we had any money — in four years. There was no acrimony during that four-year period. It was a difficult time, but it was a great time.”

Fujioka’s exit comes at a time of transition at the highest level of county government. Two new county supervisors are on the job (Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis replaced Zev Yaroslavsky and Gloria Molina, respectively), and this year the county will also welcome new faces for the sheriff, assessor, legal counsel, and public health director, as well as someone to fill Fujioka’s shoes as CEO.

In a farewell letter to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Fujioka mentioned that he had only intended to serve as CEO for five years when he was first hired in 2007. But after the worst effects of the recession receded, Fujioka stayed on to ensure that the county remained on firm ground.

“When our County was faced with the devastating impact of the recent recession, I felt that it was important that I stay to help weather the storm,” Fujioka said. “Now that we have strong signs of financial stability and economic growth, it’s time to move on to the next adventure.”

As the nation’s largest county looks ahead, the Fujioka’s management during and after the economic crisis will be remembered for a long time.