In this episode, our host, Paul A. Smith, sits down for a conversation with Patrick "Pat" Blacklock, the new President and CEO of RCRC. Learn how Pat's journey in the county family began, what led him to RCRC, and his vision for RCRC's advocacy and support of rural counties. At what Californians hope may be the tail end of pandemic shutdowns, in a redistricting year with new challenges brought about by the pandemic, and with a gubernatorial recall election on the horizon, hear how Pat is looking toward the future as he begins to lead RCRC in these unique times.
Having worked as CAO of both Amador and Yolo counties, Pat shares his perspective on the similarities and differences of rural California counties. Listen in to hear what Pat sees as priorities for RCRC, his plans for setting the organization’s path for the future, and his secret to maintaining work/life balance when counties run 24/7.
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Redistricting webinar recordings and other resources
INTRO: [00:00:00] Welcome to Hometown California, a production of the Rural County Representatives of California, advocating for California's rural counties for nearly 50 years. Hometown California tells the rural story through the eyes of those who live, work, and play in the rural communities of the Golden State.
PAUL: [00:00:16] Welcome to Hometown California. I'm your host, Paul Smith. Today, I'm joined by Patrick Blacklock, the new President and CEO of the Rural County Representatives of California, better known as RCRC, the parent of Hometown California. Patrick is new. In fact, he has only been on the job a little over a week. So we are really excited to have him here. So, Patrick, thanks for joining us today.
PAT: [00:00:49] Thank you. It is a pleasure to be here today.
PAUL: [00:00:51] So you've been involved in the county family for a number of years. So we thought we would talk a little bit about your involvement and then what's going on here at RCRC and your new role. You actually began your professional career with the California Cattlemen's Association here doing lobbying work in Sacramento. So you're no stranger to politics in the capital. What ignited your interest in this kind of work?
PAT: [00:01:14] Well, ironically, the answer to how I became involved with county service goes back to RCRC. As you noted, I was a lobbyist for the Cattlemen's Association when I came out of college and began working with then RCRC lobbyist Wes Luhan on legislation. And we were running a bill together around noxious weed funding and in the course of that, got to know each other and talk about our hopes and dreams and aspirations. And in the course of that, Wes said "you really should consider applying for the county administrator position and Amador County". At the time, I thought, well, that seems like a stretch for a lobbyist to do that. But he was compelling and convinced me to apply because he knew where he thought my interests lie. And it turns out he was correct. And when I had a chance to interview with the board up there, I felt like we really hit it off. And apparently my feelings were correct because they ultimately offered me the position and that started my career as a county administrator. And I have to say, I found it fascinating from day one.
PAUL: [00:02:06] I did not know that. So that's pretty interesting that you were brought into the county family by RCRC, working with the Cattlemen's Association. Probably one of the organizations we work closely with share a lot of issues together. Many folks may also not know your father was a CAO, long time CAO. Was there any nudging going on there with respect to pursuing CAO work?
PAT: [00:02:27] If anything, I think he may have urged caution as I considered the position. My dad actually became the Butte County CAO shortly after I left for college. So I wasn't necessarily direct exposed, so to speak, to his experiences then, as much as I was earlier in his life when he served as the clerk of the board for Solano County. And some of my earliest memories are wandering the hallways of the old Solano County courthouse. And perhaps that led to some exposure that ultimately provided a pathway for the future.
PAUL: [00:02:54] In light of him being a CAO and then you becoming a CAO not too long after that. What were some of the things you learned from him? Tricks of the trade, maybe both policy and style?
PAT: [00:03:05] Well, he certainly urged forging a positive relationship with county counsel, which I took to heart. And I was very fortunate, Amador County to work with then the second longest serving county counsel in the state, John Hahn, who I really felt like took me under his wing a little bit and helped to mentor me. The same was true- they had a longtime county auditor/controller, John Kirkpatrick, who I tell people, taught me the art of county budgeting. And I was so fortunate that they were both willing to do that and to provide me their expertise.
PAUL: [00:03:32] So Amador County, small county, about twenty five, thirty thousand if I'm correct, probably when you were there, was that level. Interesting you chose a small, really small county. Do you regret not having gone to a county, a larger county, that maybe you were the assistant CAO first and worked your way up or just going in trial by error being a I think what is the first CAO of Amador County?
PAT: [00:03:53] I was the first. That's part of what made it the perfect opportunity for me. In fact, when I interviewed with the board, I acknowledged that I wasn't coming in with a wealth of experience that would allow me to act as a seasoned CAO from day one. But I think that's partly what they were looking for, was somebody who could grow with the organization. And I think that's exactly how it turned out. Fortunately, through the mentorship of the individuals that I mentioned below-- and there were others they had Undersheriff Kalika Knoblock who was really instructive to me-- and so those individuals and the board were willing to take their time with me and allow me to grow in the position. And consequently, it just was the perfect fit and the right opportunity for me to begin my career in county service. When I talked to master of public administration students, for example, I often say there's two ways to enter. One is to go to a very small city or a small county and start in an elevated position. Or you can go to a larger jurisdiction to start perhaps as an analyst and work your way up. Both our great pathways. It's just a matter of what's the right pathway for you.
PAUL: [00:04:48] Right. So you were longtime CAO, close to, what? Almost ten years there?
PAT: [00:04:54] In Amador was a little over five years. In Yolo I was a little over eleven.
PAUL: [00:04:57] So you had a couple little things in between, but you were in Amador and then became the Yolo County CAO and there you were in that position for quite a while. Correct? What similarities, what differences did you notice going from Amador to Yolo?
PAT: [00:05:12] The counties are definitely similar, I think, throughout the state in terms of the services they provide. And so when you look at a county budget, for example, there's differences in the number of zeroes that come after the the dollar sign. But for the most part, it's the same programs. And so administratively, they feel very similar. Where the differences lie, I often feel is sort of the cultural aspects of the community. And so in Amador, I would characterize it as a mountain county as opposed to Yolo County, which is more of a valley ag county. Yolo is certainly also characterized by having a university in its presence. And so that makes for differences even within the county in terms of the communities of interest. And so those communities, or the cultural values, often play out at the Board of Supervisors level in terms of where their interests lie. In Amador County, there was a heavy focus on land use for example, while in YOLO County, the Health and Human Services programs were clearly a priority.
PAUL: [00:06:02] Harping on that difference. One's a very red county and once a blue county, for lack of better terms. Did that other factor in in terms of the political ideology and the representation of the board and Congress, state legislature, where those difference notable as well?
PAT: [00:06:19] Periodically, a little bit. But I think the similarity may lie in the tension that exists. Even though counties are subdivisions of the state, there's often a tension with the state and with the state legislature in terms of their priorities and how those impact counties, as you well know, and particularly in the area of what comes down as a mandate, often isn't fully funded. And so regardless of whether you're a blue county or a red county, those tensions, those challenges are viewed similarly, I believe.
PAUL: [00:06:48] And again, along the way, probably still seeking the advice of your father and in managing those differences in managing counties as a whole.
PAT: [00:06:54] Yeah, it was helpful growing up in a family that had a lot of political exposure. We didn't mention that my dad also worked for Senator Nielsen. And so another early memory as a child is roaming around the Capitol, including when the senator was the Republican Party leader. And so being in those ornate offices and historic side of the building and all of those are memories that I'm sure had an impact in terms of future career journeys.
PAUL: [00:07:18] Yeah, you're going way back is that's that's the early 1980s in terms of Senator Nelson being the leader of the Republicans in the state Senate. Very interesting. Back to the two counties, Yolo and Amador. I assume they share a lot of long term goals that rural counties face, i.e. broadband deployment. The fire threat seems to permeate all throughout California, if not rural California. How did you tackle that? Were there differences in how you would do broadband deployment in Amador versus Yolo in dealing with the fire and dealing with some of the other non-direct county issues?
PAT: [00:07:53] Well, it's interesting. Broadband was not yet as prominent an issue when I was in Amador County. In fact, I was reflecting that when I was in Amador County. I might occasionally get a call on my cell phone and that's all I used it for. It was a cell phone and nothing more. And I fast forward to by the time I had was concluding my tenure and Yolo County, my mobile phone was a mobile office that was constantly lighting up with texts, emails, etc. And so that's really changed the profession a little bit in terms of it's become more 24/7. And then in the pandemic, the broadband issue came to light in multiple ways from making sure children were able to access their schooling to county employees being able to access. And so I think broadband, if anything, is now as prominent as it has ever been and it wasn't as prominent in Amador County, but certainly in Yolo it is. I think there are a commonality of issues across the counties, as you mentioned, certainly fire protection. We see in many communities nationally where you have volunteer fire protection districts, the number of volunteers declining, and the service call volume increasing. And that was true for both Amador and Yolo. And it is such a challenging issue to address because you have a lot of, you know, small fire districts that have a lot of historical value and trust, and change comes hard and yet there isn't new money out there. And so, to come up with a solution that allows for paid staffing, whether you're in a very small county or a much larger county, those are difficult issues to deal with. And then, other issues that come to mind as common across the counties-- and I'm sure that those listening will these will resound with them-- but, roads. Road maintenance. Even with SB 1, that's still a challenge in terms of having sufficient funding for road maintenance, whether you're a small county or a big county. And then, the last one I'll mention between the two is law enforcement. I think both counties had the same number of deputies, sometimes, on patrol. And so you think Amador County, with a county of 35,000 and Yolo County, with a county of 220,000 that there would be more deputies. But again, it comes down to the fact that post-Prop 13, the general funds of counties are basically a declining fund because expenditures are growing faster than revenues. And consequently, those departments that are wholly dependent on the general fund aren't able to grow at the pace of the populations increasing. And it's a real challenge whether you're a very small county or a medium sized county.
PAUL: [00:10:08] Yeah, there's no question about that. Let's kind of transition that away into your new role, which I have a feeling we're going to pick up on some of those issues we just talked about. You're now the CEO of RCRC. I think the third or fourth CEO in its history dating back to the1970s. What are your plans for it, both in the short term and the medium term, maybe even the long term, in terms of making this an effective organization, maybe venturing out and doing some things that haven't been done before?
PAT: [00:10:37] Well, if you allow me to digress for just a second with another story, I mentioned Wes Luhan and RCRC was sort of the impetus for me applying to Amador County. But I think within the first week or two of becoming the Amador County CAO, Brent Harrington came as the RCRC CEO, had lunch with me, and shared with me his thoughts on how to be successful as a CAO, which I was very appreciative of. And it was helpful because he knew Amador County a little bit, having been the Calaveras County CAO previously. To take that to the present time, I'm hopeful that I can be a similar resource for counties. In fact, I've already had initial conversations with some of the small county CAOs who have on their own reached out to me to say we're small, we need assistance. Can you be there for us? And I think that is a role that RCRC can play, particularly for those smaller counties who may not have the capacity to do it on their own. Earlier you mentioned those issues may re-arise. Certainly broadband is a great example of one that is front and center, that RCRC is uniquely positioned to be an asset for helping all the member counties address. And then, what's long been a priority for RCRC is forest health. And I see that continuing to be a top priority.
PAUL: [00:11:39] What are the other things that you're thinking about as you come into this job? Again, in terms of the structure of RCRC, the marketing of RCRC, just where it fits in the whole advocacy/county family?
PAT: [00:11:50] Well, one thing I think is an opportunity is to do some strategic planning to let the RCRC board, let the employees within the organization, to let our member counties have input into answering those very questions you just asked. So we anticipate that as early as the June board meeting we'll be initiating some strategic planning, the goal of which will be to sort of tie all that together to say "where are we going to be in five years and what are the key priorities?" And presumably forest health and broadband will be there. But maybe there are others that we haven't thought of or maybe there will be ones that we are doing that they want us to re-prioritize. So I think that will be a good process for us to go through to collaboratively answer the question you just asked.
PAUL: [00:12:27] Seems like rural counties have a huge challenge in front of them, no matter what it is, just because of the way the state is structured as a whole and just the kind of the times we're in, whether it's the COVID dynamics or it's just the political dynamics, a lot of work needs to be done and probably some self-evaluation. So it sounds like you're ready to go to lead those discussions.
PAT: [00:12:45] Yeah, and I think on that note to RCRC has long been, and is, uniquely positioned to be an aggregator for small counties. Where there as a state regulation coming or a program coming that the small county may not have the staffing on their own to do it. If RCRC can help six, seven, eight, 10 counties do it together-- ESJPA is a great example of that-- I think there's going to be a lot of opportunity on the horizon for that to continue to be a place for RCRC.
PAUL: [00:13:09] So talk about some of the other political challenges. Some of them are political in nature, but some of them are public policy, in terms of what you think you're going to face in the coming months, coming years that are really immediate that have to be resolved for rural California.
PAT: [00:13:24] Well, for me, one thing I need to be out doing is building relationships in Sacramento with key players in Sacramento. For example, I've reached out to the Sierra Nevada Conservancy and others like that to develop those relationships, which will hopefully be an asset and complementary to those that our team already have. And the reason for that, as you know, is that when you look at the legislature and you look at how many legislators come from either the Bay Area or the Los Angeles basin, that doesn't leave many for the rural areas. And consequently, to have a strong voice, we have to have strong relationships that go beyond our rural county boundaries. And so that's definitely a role for myself and our team here at RCRC to be playing so that we can have a strong voice when those issues make it to the legislature. So, to circle back to your question, I think a challenge will be simply the makeup of the legislature and the lack of familiarity with rural county issues. That's long been a challenge that will continue to be a challenge. And I don't see that changing in the near term.
PAUL: [00:14:20] Yeah, it seems like there is a huge disconnect between the major population centers of California and its rural citizens, where even though a lot of people who live in rural California and they obviously have an interconnection all the way around. You've talked about this just a moment ago in terms of the legislature. This is a redistricting year. The legislature is going to change because of it. Our congressional delegation is going to change. But even more importantly, boards of supervisor districts are going to change. Have you thought about where RCRC can fit in all of those three dynamics?
PAT: [00:14:52] Well, certainly an educational presence is something RCRC is already doing with the redistricting webinars, and that could not be more timely given the changing deadlines that are being imposed first by the census in terms of when those results will be available. But then secondly, what that means in terms of state deadlines. I think that's going to be a big uncertainty for counties because the process from the last couple of census and redistricting timelines, that process is being upended by the delay in getting the census results. And so that produces a lot of uncertainty about what that's going to mean for the long road, because we're not-- counties aren't going to have the time they have historically had for public engagement or collaboration or thoughtful development of redistricting maps. I don't pretend to know what the answer is going to be in terms of how a compressed timeline impacts those processes.
PAUL: [00:15:38] Yeah, it is going to be a challenge not just for rural California, but all political entities in the state. You're also doing this in what looks like a gubernatorial recall season. I think by the time we have this podcast aired, we'll know yay or nay on whether this recall will move forward. All indications they are. How do you think that's going to play over the next year in terms of advancing rural California's public policy agenda or just the political body of California in general?
PAT: [00:16:08] It certainly heightens the uncertainty. It's hard to plan six months in advance when you have something that significant on the horizon. But that said, I think some of the issues like forest health and fire prevention are probably going to resonate across party lines. And so hopefully those areas of commonality can be ones where the focus remains, even in the midst of great uncertainty inspired by election drama.
PAUL: [00:16:33] Yeah, and then we're doing all of this while we're still in the middle of a pandemic. You being in Yolo County through most of the pandemic, you are aware of the challenges that counties face. But, also managing this organization and advancing the public policy goals and working with the board. How do you see us doing this in this pandemci-- hopefully is the tail end of it?
PAT: [00:16:54] Well, I think that's the question, is it the tail end? If June 15th is really a reopening date, then perhaps things will begin to go back to normal. So that means planning for that. And we're like every other organization, both public and private right now, trying to reimagine what that looks like. I think there have been a lot of lessons learned through the pandemic in terms of how telecommuting can work and what it needs to have in order to be effective. And so it's probably going to look a little different. I know Google, for example, is reimagining it. In their world, there will be days that everybody needs to be there for the collegiality that occurs by having everyone there, but there probably will be some increased flexibility around telecommuting. We're in that process, like I say, like every other organization of trying to better understand what that can look like and put down a draft policy and start working on it.
PAUL: [00:17:41] You obviously have a huge wealth of knowledge in both running counties, but also now being part of a 37 member organization you're looking out for the broader aspects of rural California and and the counties. What advice do you have for those that are managing counties, either at the supervisorial level, the staff level, regional level, learning from what you've undertaken through the last 20 or 30 years? Again, any advice you can share with some of the folks that might be listening to this podcast who are involved in counties?
PAT: [00:18:11] One phrase I often use, is that it's a marathon, not a sprint. Counties started in 1850 and haven't stopped. They go 24/7. And you have to pace yourself in terms of actions, whether you're a CAO or a board member or a department head. It's a marathon, not a sprint. The second thing I focus on is the need for collaboration. Collaboration can take a little more time at the start, but the product will be better as a result of it. And so, particularly in county land where you have elected department heads, appointed department heads, a five member board, getting something in place that's going to be long lasting it's much more likely to be so if it enjoys support across those boundaries. And so collaboration is key.
PAUL: [00:18:52] Yeah, and it's tough to do that these days. Again, pandemic and then the political polarization we have. So, that's probably the most well-needed advice that you can share with folks from all levels of counties. So hopefully that resonates. Let's talk a little bit on the personal side. We spent a lot of time on counties in your professional career. What do you do for fun?
PAT: [00:19:14] Well, it feels like when I'm not here my kids run my life. I have a freshman and sophomore in high school. And so my focus when I'm not here is very much on them. I recognize that time is moving quickly and it won't be that long before they are out of high school. So I'm trying to soak up every moment in the interim, including this weekend, for example, we we escaped to a rural county, to Lake County, and spent some time on the lake at Clearlake. And that's just one of those memories. I'm trying to create as many of those as I can before, again, high school concludes.
PAUL: [00:19:44] And I understand you kind of are a fitness buff. Maybe, are you still doing that these days? Do you find time for that? Any anything going on on the fitness side?
PAT: [00:19:54] I do. I weightlift a couple of times a week. I've become a peloton aficionado, that's for sure. So that's easy to fit in at any time of the day. And I think those are important parts of maintaining your physical health to match your your mental health as you deal with stressful careers and kids and all of that sort of thing.
PAUL: [00:20:10] So, Peladon, do you have one of those really fancy ones where you can ride anywhere in the world on a video?
PAT: [00:20:15] It's one where you can have the instructors in front of you and so you can pick a class in terms of length, time and intensity, music, all those sort of things. And in the pandemic, they became wildly popular since you could do them at home.
PAUL: [00:20:26] Yeah, I was hoping maybe you would say that you choose a rural county in California and take a bike trail or something like that from it.
PAT: [00:20:32] Some things go without saying, Paul, of course, that's what it's for.
PAUL: [00:20:35] There you go. How do you maintain that work/life balance? It's got to be tough. You're obviously very knowledgeable about counties. You bring a wealth of information and a great reputation to RCRC, you have kids, you indicated that these jobs now are 24/7. Counties never sleep. What's your secret in maintaining that work life balance?
PAT: [00:20:54] Well, that's part of why I said it's a marathon, not a sprint. If you let it, you could be at the office all day and all night. So you have to have some boundaries in terms of when you go home. I think the bigger challenge on that front has been the mobile devices, because it used to be that when I went home, even in Amador County, I wasn't looking at email and I wasn't necessarily getting texts. But that has changed over time. The advantage of that is in the midst of a pandemic, you could work from home almost as effectively as you could work from the office. I don't pretend to have all the answers though, because I do think that mobile devices are intruding into that work/life balance a little bit. All that said, I get up early so that I can do my workouts and get those in before the day takes off in a hurry. And secondly, when I do try to be intentional about my time with my kids, whether that's later in the evening or on the weekends, I try to make sure that I don't disrupt that. And I carve out time to do the work on the weekends so that I'm balancing all that.
PAUL: [00:21:46] Yeah, well, I can tell you that defending rural California, promoting rural California could easily be a 26 hour a day job. So I hope you can adhere to that rule and give some time to your family because it's very important. We're really glad you got a few moments to sit down with us. I think RCRC is in for some good times, some special times under your leadership. And I think the board made a wise choice selecting you to take us to the new level. So we're really excited. You could share a little bit of that vision, a little bit that history.
PAT: [00:22:15] I want to thank you as well. It's such a great team here. They've been so welcoming and it feels like something very special to have been invited to join the RCRC team.
PAUL: [00:22:23] Well, that's great news to hear. We are very excited for you to take this leadership role, again, move the organization forward. We hope you can perhaps come back another time and give an update as to what's going on internally here at RCRC and the things that you've accomplished in that short period of time.
PAT: [00:22:39] I look forward to it. Thank you.
PAUL: [00:22:40] Thanks again, Pat. Best of luck to you. And I'm sure we will see and hear from you throughout the next year and throughout all of these podcast recordings.
PAT: [00:22:48] Thank you. And best of luck to you, too.
OUTRO: [00:22:50] You've been listening to Hometown California, a production of the Rural County Representatives of California. Subscribe now so you don't miss an episode and be sure to rate and review this podcast. I'm your host, Paul Smith. Thanks for listening.