The County Voice

Another Voice: Discussing Policy and Meeting the President

On Tuesday, May 3, I had the incredible privilege of attending at an important meeting in the Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C. Attended by NACo representatives from throughout the country, we had an opportunity to discuss key policy issues with Cabinet secretaries – not to mention the President and Vice President! 

David Agnew, Deputy Director of Intergovernmental Affairs for the White House, organized this meeting for just county officials. NACO’s Executive Director Larry Naake had been asking for such a meeting, believing counties needed an opportunity to express our concerns and get information from major agencies regarding developing or current policies affecting local government.  Mr. Agnew did an outstanding job of bringing together five Cabinet Secretaries, the Vice President and the President to meet with us. 

California had a strong contingent of county officials in attendance:  Don Knabe, Zev Yaroslavsky, Mark Ridley-Thomas from Los Angeles; Scott Haggerty, Alameda; Brian Dahle, Lassen; Liz Kniss, Santa Clara, and Shirlee Zane and myself from Sonoma.  My understanding is President Glen Whitley extended the invitation to Chairs and Vice Chairs of NACo Committees; thus; you can see it is important to be a part of this national organization. 

The five-hour meeting was divided into three sessions: 1) Breaking the Cycle of Jail and Poverty; 2) Infrastructure and Sustainable Communities; and 3)  Health Reform Implementation and Medicaid

Session I was moderated by Ron Sims, Deputy Director  of HUD, and former County Executive of King County, Washington.  We have never had a better advocate for county government.  Ron makes sure  every department, or anyone he interfaces with understands that counties play a role in implementation of federal policy and need to be at the table.  His words are “we are the ignition key” to programs and services and this should be the “Century of Counties.”  His panel included Laurie Robinson, Asst Attorney General, DOJ; Pamela Hyde, Administrator of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services; and John Linton, Director, Office of Correctional Education, DOE.  

Their statistics on jail admissions were staggering.  One study on jail re-entry  found that 87% of those arrested couldn’t post bail when it was set at $1,000.  Imagine what this means detainees who lose health care during pre-trial. This was a question asked and addressed by the panel.  They noted there was a publication titled Elected Officials’ Tool Kit for Re-Entry. Perhaps you have seen it, I haven’t but will.   

Ms. Hyde talked of SAMSHA programs and cited statistics on the prevalence of mental health/substance abuse issues in our jail populations, with the highest percentage  with our juveniles. She strongly favored jail diversion – with Drug Courts and Pre –sentencing risk assessment.  I reflected when she spoke of how aligned this issue was with Governor Brown’s realignment proposal. 

Mr. Linton said that the highest needs of re-entry were job, housing, driver’s license, education and financial assistance.  Questions arose about No Child Left Behind policies and unintended consequences of states testing, which shifted young people into a marginal status. 

Session II was very engaging. The panelists were Ray LaHood, Secretary, DOT; Shaun Donovan, Secretary, HUD; and Lisa Jackson, Administrator, EPA.  Imagine a panel with that level of authority.  Clearly they work together on sustainable approaches to communities and infrastructure.  The ease with which they answered questions from the county officials was reassuring and the questions were not easy ones, many of which were directed at Administrator Jackson.  Lassen County Supervisor Brian Dahle was outspoken and illustrated the plight of rural counties. 

Janet Napolitano addressed counties on securing our land and sea, immigration enforcement, disaster preparation and recovery, and counter terrorism – a great topic since we were there two days after the death of Osama bin Laden.  The new mantra for intelligence is, “See Something, Say Something,” which she noted was well branded throughout the country.  She spoke of Secure Communities and how well the program is working. 

Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of HHS, had barely entered the room to speak when Vice President Biden was announced, so she swiftly left the stage and he entered.  He spoke from the podium for a brief while and then left the stage, refused a microphone and spoke to us directly.  In his casual, comforting style, the Vice President talked about foreign policy, the role counties play in implementation and, of course, gave us kudos for the job we do.  His engagement lasted almost 20 minutes, and kind of like with our own Governor, his staff pretty much left him alone….clearly he loves the opportunity to talk with fellow elected officials.  

The last session was moderated by Cecelia Munoz, Director, White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. The panelists were Cindy Mann, Deputy Administrator and Director, Center for Medicaid, CHIP and Survey and Certification; Jeanne Lambrew, Deputy Assistant to the President for Health Policy, White House Domestic Policy Council.  There was much concern over the potential for block granting Medicaid and many county officials spoke against this idea.  We had been asked to provide some questions by NACo prior to going to the meeting and many of the panelists referred to or thanked officials for their questions and suggestions.  California County Supervisors Liz Kniss, Shirlee Zane and Don Knabe asked  some great questions. 

At almost 6pm, after probably 20 people had addressed issues to the panel on health reform, we were told the President was arriving.  The NACo officers were taken aside and had an opportunity to actually meet the President of the United States of America “face to face”.  When I told him my name and I was from Sonoma County, he said, “What a beautiful place, did you bring me a bottle of wine?”  Now when have you known me to be at a loss for words?  The experience was memorable and, of course,  he asked NACo Second Vice President Chris Rogers  if he had played basketball (Chris is about 6′9″and played at Creighton).  I think Chris was hoping he would be invited to join the White House basketball team.  The President then entered the room through the secret door –  I only say secret because I have no idea what is back there – and addressed our county officials for 15 minutes. When officials stormed the stage, he shook hands and signed autographs.  Secret Service agents clearly stood guard, but it was an important time for all. 

Kudos to the NACo organization and David Agnew for making it ALL ABOUT COUNTIES – Remember, this should be the “Century of Counties!”

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