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    County CEO Frank Kim set to retire this week, still no success in finding his replacement
    • July 6, 2024

    Frank Kim is wrapping up the last week of his nine years as Orange County’s CEO, having shepherded the administration during a global pandemic, a homelessness crisis and major construction. But with his last day arriving, the OC Board of Supervisors has still not picked a permanent replacement.

    Kim said his 29 years total working for the county have taught him that local government is the backbone on which Orange County residents and businesses thrive.

    Frank Kim, CEO of Orange County with the Santa Ana skyline in 2015. (Photo by MINDY SCHAUER, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Orange County CEO Frank Kim speaks as Dr. Veronica Kelley, chief of Mental Health and Recovery Services at the Orange County Health Care Agency, listens during a meeting in Orange in 2023. The pair were part of a meeting with workers from the county’s Office of Outreach and Engagement, part of the Orange County Health Care Agency.

    County Executive Officer Frank Kim talks to concerned residents during an open house to discuss the proposed 425-bed homeless transitional center on Yale Street at the Heritage Museum in Santa Ana on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Orange County CEO Frank Kim at the County Administration building in Santa Ana, CA, on Wednesday, July 3, 2024. Kim is retiring on July 11. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

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    “When I think about the county, we run the library system, we run all the regional parks. We have beaches that people enjoy. We help build the streets,” Kim said. “People, I think, don’t think about who does it. They just know that it’s done and they have a super high expectation.”

    Kim gave notice of his pending retirement in late November, but supervisors can’t reach a consensus on who will replace him and manage the county’s $9.5 billion budget, along with its more than 18,000 employees.

    “My hope is that we continue to work with the candidates and see if the board can come to some understanding because Frank Kim is now going to be gone and there aren’t many options left to us,” Second District Supervisor Vicente Sarmiento said. “We have so many other priorities that we need to take care of.”

    Third District Supervisor Don Wagner, who was part of an ad-hoc committee with Fifth District Supervisor Katrina Foley to find candidates to bring to the full board, said one of the reasons the hunt for Kim’s replacement is proving “very difficult,” is the next CEO has big shoes to fill.

    “Roughly 20 candidates were looked at by the ad-hoc committee as potentials, some seriously good candidates,” he said. “We narrowed it down to six, interviewed the six, narrowed it down to three for the board as a whole to talk to. And the board liked all three of them for different reasons in different ways, and decided … let’s talk to all six.”

    Wagner said he can see any of the candidates, each with unique strengths and weaknesses, being the next CEO. But while a number of candidates have been able to muster three votes, he said none have been able to garner support from the full five-supervisor board.

    “One of the weaknesses is that they’re not Frank Kim. They don’t have that institutional knowledge. That provides us with a challenge,” Wagner said.

    Fourth District Supervisor Doug Chaffee said Kim’s background, not only as CEO but in his several previous county positions including in finance, has made the hunt for his successor difficult.

    “We had a national search, which took some time. I’m not certain that we got a perfectly good pool of candidates under that, so we’ve been looking at some additional people,” Chaffee said. “I have a candidate that I like, I think would do a good job. We all want to do the best for the county, but we’ve not reached an agreement.”

    Wagner, who is chair of the Board of Supervisors, said the county’s chief financial officer, Michelle Aguirre, will step in as interim CEO until the board makes a hire.

    Kim was tapped to be the top executive of the county in 2015. In August 2022, he agreed to extend his contract through May 2025, but now Kim says he wants to focus on his personal life outside of government and the public eye – you know, clean the garage, mow the lawn, relax.

    Addressing homelessness

    Kim said the thing he looks back on with the most pride is developing the county’s homeless system of care.

    Soon after he stepped in as chief executive, a crisis began unfolding as a large encampment grew along the Santa Ana riverbed, forcing cities and the county to look at how they were addressing homelessness.

    “When I first came in, most counties, including Orange, didn’t have a developed system of care,” Kim said. What followed, he said, was “building out our outreach team, developing a structure and a system for how we engage with homeless people where they’re at.”

    The county also developed two shelters, adding hundreds of beds to the local supply, as well as worked with nonprofits and cities to streamline access to resources, including mental health and substance use services.

    Still, more than 7,300 people reported being without permanent shelter in January when the county took a required point-in-time count – up 28% from the previous survey two years prior.

    County officials attributed the stark increase to the loss of pandemic-era resources in place in 2022 that were keeping more people off the streets. (The count still showed a 7% increase in people experiencing homelessness from 2019 to 2024.)

    Kim said he doesn’t put much emphasis on the biennial count because it doesn’t show the full picture of homelessness in Orange County. Evaluating the full system of care is more telling of what needs are or aren’t being addressed when it comes to the homeless community, he said.

    He is proud of working with cities to build mental health facilities, shelters and affordable housing projects, but said there is still more work to be done.

    “When I think about homelessness, you have to give them help. I also think that there has to be consequences,” he said. “I think our community, our society and the state, they’re at the beginning of thinking through what laws and what services, and what mix of laws and services, provide that bookend of help, but also of consequence.”

    “We have to help them with their drug use,” he said, but added, “We have to make sure that if they’re committing crimes, that they’re held accountable.

    “And so there’s a balance and it doesn’t feel balanced today.”

    He also said there remains the need for more buy-in.

    “Addressing how to serve the homeless people in the communities that they live in is challenging because most communities don’t want the homeless in and around their community. They want you to help them, but just help them somewhere else,” Kim said. “That’s how we built the service planning area model, saying every region, we would ideally like them to have a shelter, a location where they can connect to services, treatment programs so that they’re connected within their general community.”

    Upgrading infrastructure

    Another career highlight, Kim said, is the newly opened Civic Center.

    Under Kim’s leadership, the county followed through with a $400 million project to build the present-day county headquarters in Santa Ana.

    The idea, he said, was to bring in all county departments and create a “one-stop-shop” for residents. Currently, the buildings house the county’s administrative and public health offices, a larger public meeting room and a service center where residents can get copies of important documents, apply for permits and more.

    Still to come, he said, is to bring over the district attorney and social services departments.

    “People think, great, you spend all this money, you’re just building ivory towers for government employees. No, it’s more than that. We’re bringing a lot of our county departments into the Civic Center because before they were leasing space,” Kim said. “Yes, we had to invest in it, but long term, we’re going to save money because we’re not paying leases forever. We own these buildings and then all the departments are coming in.”

    In 2018, the county’s new $35 million, 30,000-square-foot animal shelter opened in Tustin, replacing an increasingly inadequate facility that dated back to the 1940s.

    It’s another facility Kim is proud to have been part of bringing online; significantly larger, it provided proper surgical suites, air-conditioned kennels, play areas and more.

    But animal advocates have begun to criticize the county’s shelter system again, post pandemic, arguing its hours aren’t conducive to getting the most animals adopted out, there are chronic staffing shortages and its policies lead to too many euthanized animals and overpopulation problems.

    “I know we still take a lot of criticism from many of the community members about the condition of animal care, but I generally disagree with them. When I look at the condition of animal care and I look at the individual issues that people bring up, I’m confident that the staff is handling it the right way,” Kim said. “They would want us to be perfect. I would like us to be perfect. Perfection is difficult, and we’re working toward being better always.”

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    Navigating the pandemic

    The coronavirus pandemic was a challenge, Kim said, but one that he now thinks has helped the county foster better public health decisions.

    “When I think about the COVID experience, we all struggled with the various health orders that came down from the state and advice from the federal government,” Kim said. “It was difficult. But the one good thing that came from it is that we understood we had an opportunity to really learn how a large-scale public health disaster affects county residents and businesses.”

    But the county’s response was not perfect, he said, and looking back he wishes services were set up more quickly for community members, especially those most at-risk.

    “We acted with the best intent, but hindsight is always more accurate,” Kim said. “We could have gotten the testing stations up faster. We could have put the vaccine centers up faster.”

    A week sooner here and there, he said. “You always have regrets over stuff like that.”

    With COVID-19 came an influx of state and federal rescue funding.

    In 2021, the five supervisor districts were each allocated $10 million in federal relief money and another $3 million in general funds to spend in the local communities.

    “So the board members had a discussion in public. They said, ‘Every one of our districts is different. We represent our districts, so to address the concerns of our district, either in supporting businesses, restaurants … we would like some of that funding so that we can direct how it’s allocated,’” Kim said.

    Last year, questions were raised about the policies surrounding the districts’ discretionary funds and $6.2 million that First District Supervisor Andrew Do directed to a small nonprofit, Viet America Society, after it became public his daughter has been listed at times as a leader of the organization.

    Though Do was not legally required to disclose the family connection, it prompted Sarmiento to lobby (ultimately unsuccessfully) for rules that would make it so when any immediate family member is involved in the organization receiving discretionary funds.

    Government code, Kim said, gives the publicly elected Board of Supervisors the power to appropriate and spend public tax dollars.

    “Do I worry about the board members implementing district funds again in the future? I think to be very candid, it is their authority,” Kim said. “I’m not elected by the people to direct how tax dollars are spent. I make recommendations, but it is their authority.”

    Looking ahead for OC

    Kim said the county’s next CEO faces a handful of pressing issues to address when they take the seat.

    There are changes coming with the Mental Health Services Act, which directs hundreds of millions of dollars to the county for behavioral health programs, but is going to start requiring more of the funding to go to housing.

    And there’s pressure in general from the state to build more housing, he said.

    “We are working with the state to identify the best way for a county that looks like Orange, which is a very high-density community, to be able to incorporate the number of affordable housing units that they’re asking for in a way that doesn’t lose the character that makes Orange County such a wonderful place to live and work,” Kim said.

    “We agree that we do need to build more affordable housing units. And we’re doing it as fast as possible. It’s just a challenge because of the density of the county,” he said.

    But the job of local government is to keep the ball rolling, Kim said. “That’s a lot of what we do here in the county, we have lots of projects, and you’re just trying to advance them every day.”

    Kim is not involved in the hiring process for his replacement, but he says the supervisors are looking at a strong pool of candidates.

    “The only advice that I gave the board is that they should look for somebody who can serve the diverse interests of the board. Somebody who is fair, who is apolitical, who will administer the county responsibly,” Kim said.

    “It’s been a really good 29 years. I’m really proud of the work that I’ve done here,” he said. “I’m proud of my coworkers. I think every CEO that’s been in has made the county a little bit better.

    “I’m happy to leave my mark and make it a little bit better than it was when I came in.”

    ​ Orange County Register 

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