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Former city administrator easing into role as county supervisor

January 11, 2011

Third District Supervisor Rick Pucci, with his wife Mary, at his last City Council meeting while employed with the City of Bishop. Before his election to the Board of Supervisors, Pucci served for 30 years as Bishop’s city administrator. Photo by Mike Bodine

Following a 30-year career in city government, serving as administrator for the City of Bishop, Rick Pucci stepped into a new, although not unfamiliar role last week.
Retired from his post at the local municipality and having successfully won a bid for Third District Inyo County Supervisor in June, Pucci took his seat on Jan. 4 at the dais alongside other members of the Board of Supervisors.
The Inyo Register recently sat down with Pucci to discuss how the transition has been going, what hopes he has for his term and to which issues he’d like to see the board devote its energy.

IR: You’ve been attending meetings leading up to your first meeting this past week. Did you learn anything new?
RP: I attended the ones where I thought there was some real learning that I needed to do. It wasn’t that I didn’t need to attend the meetings, it was just that I didn’t want to create an awkward situation.
I don’t need procedural training and that sort of thing, because I’m sort of used to that. I’m familiar with some of the issues, but not a lot. I have a lot of learning to do.
Now I did receive all of the agendas since I was elected. I’ve followed the agendas and made sure I was up to date on the agendas.
I know a lot about the valley because I’ve been here so long, and I’ve actually worked in government in the valley, but the issues with the county are often-times very unique and I don’t know all of the issues. Certainly I don’t have all of the answers, so it will be a fun and challenging learning experience for me I think.
IR: You mentioned your experience working with government here in the valley, what do you think will carry over from your position as city administrator in Bishop to your position now as the Third District Supervisor?
RP: I don’t know about specifics, but I have a general handle on government. I have some feelings about where government needs to go in general and so, I think, with that as a basis, I think I’ll have the potential to fit in real well and work well with the other four supervisors who are also pretty knowledgeable about the area and government.
IR: What do you view as some of the major issues in Inyo County?
RP: There’s a lot of little issues that are very, very important and they need to be handled. But I think the big issue today in government is financial stability.
Governments, if they want to survive, they really have to survive at the local level – I don’t think anybody really wants to be run by the State of California or the federal government. We’re really in a survival mode in both counties and cities …

And government will change. Government as we know it today will not be the same government as we know it tomorrow and years to come. That’s just a function of being dynamic and growing with the populace and economic times.
I think for the generation of revenue, the county has some very, very unique opportunities in energy renewal programs.
Water issues, always, is a continuing issue that’s been around for a lot of years and will always be around, so I think that’s an important thing to never let get on the bottom burner. It won’t. It can’t.
I think the fourth really generalized large issue would be the issue of local control verses the bigger governments, the federal government. There’s legislation consistently, constantly being implemented that would affect local governments. So we want to make sure that whatever happens, we are knowledgeable about that legislation, and also that we do whatever we can do to have our local input recognized and listened to.
IR: Do you have any ideas on how to strengthen those bonds with federal and state agencies?
RP: My philosophy has always been, at least in my prior career, we have to work with them. It’s not something you can  turn your back on, even if it looks like that may be the thing to do. You have to keep charging, keep at them, and keep your face in front of them. I think that’s important. And that face, I think, needs to be an objective face. We don’t agree on a lot of things. And there’s a trust issue. And it’s not only county.
There’s not a lot of trust between federal, state and local governments today. Cities and counties are really kind of together, kind of verses the state and verses the federal government because they’ve got a lot of programs they implement with no way to pay for them. They (the state and federal government) think they know what’s best for local areas and sometimes we disagree with that.
So I think there needs to be a continual reconciliation with the understanding that you’ll never get total agreement.
It really goes to a very basic issue which I’ve always been really cautious of and protective of, and that is the home rule concept, where you need to have a strong local government in order to provide the input that you need to provide in order to protect that ability to run your own area, whatever that is, cities and counties especially.
With this economic slap that we’ve been facing it kind of makes it more difficult because we have to be viable. There are some local entities, like the city of Vallejo, that went bankrupt. Down in Bell, that fiasco down there. Those become non-viable entities. That becomes pretty scary for the people that live  there.
IR: You mentioned the importance of economic stability. How do you see the county achieving that?
RP: I don’t have a fiscal plan for the county at all, but what I do think is that governments in general are going to have to look inward. I’ve said over and over that I really believe that governments need to and have to look more like the private sector. There’s no choice.
For a while there it was, “No, we have enough money, so we don’t have to.” Now there is no choice. We will be leaner entities, all public entities will be leaner.
And the public will have to play with us, because a lot of the growth of government has to do with people continuously asking for more government involvement. Now, we can all say, “No, we don’t do that,” but we all do it.
We can pick certain programs and say, “Well, they waste money in that program. And in the same breath we’ll have people saying, “My neighbor’s being a pain in the neck, so we need an ordinance that says you can’t have a fence that’s more than 10 feet high and you need to send somebody out to inspect all these fences.”
So we keep creating bigger government by asking for more. And a lot of it we can do ourselves. We should be talking to our neighbor. We should be getting a lot of this stuff so I don’t have to hire a new code enforcement officer or that sort of thing.
I think there’s a recognition there a bit, as long as we don’t get into specific programs, that we do have to lay off government a little bit. Let ’em get smaller. Don’t keep asking for stuff. Let them get their act together so they look more like the private sector.
The private sector’s already got businesses going out of business …
IR: When you say “leaner government,” do you have the idea of cutting any services in mind or would you like to keep services as they are?
RP: No. I don’t have a program. I’m really talking in generalities. And certainly my view of the county as one supervisor is pretty naive. I don’t have a real good handle on everything. But you’re going to see it.
In the paper we’re reading about employees contributing more to the plans they have. Government has been criticized for being overly protective. Once you get a government job you can’t ever get fire. But that’s simply not true.
Yes, there are benefit plans that are going to be looked at. They’re all going to be looked at. You see it in the two-tier (retirement) program, and it’s happening all over the state of California, it’s not just here. And you’re going to see that. You’re going to see new employees coming in, probably won’t be eligible for the same benefits that evolved in the other system.
But you also have to be careful because if you build a system where you’re not competitive, then you have public employees that you really don’t want to have out there.
I think the key is in services and in programs that we provide, innovative thinking on the part of department heads, I see it at the county and I know it at the city. We look for outside sources to do things. Even during this election, you didn’t hear people saying, “I promise to build a multi-gazillion dollar convention structure.” You know, those are the fun things from back in the day.
Now, it’s not going to be like that. We’re going to do stuff but there’s going to have to be creative thinking, a lot of pressure on staff to do programs, but try to have them pay for themselves …
IR: In your district, the Third District, do you see any problem areas or things that should be improved?
RP: I don’t see really any problem areas because, again, those issues that I said I think are going to be important are really countywide.
This district is a little bit unique because it incorporates one of the largest reservations. So I think a lot has been done and more can be done towards communication between the entities. That’s what everybody says and it’s not easy, because you have some issues that, when you’re an entity in and of itself, there’s always going to be some competition, if you will. Cities and counties do it all the time.
But I think a lot of it has to do with keeping the communication out so you can anticipate issues so you can discuss them openly. I think there have been a lot of in-roads there between the Native American population. And I only say that because this district does incorporate the largest of the reservations.
Other issues specific to the Third District are issues that are mainly the same in a lot of areas and that is that road maintenance has to be deferred because there is just no money.
One of the issues that we face is a trust issue between the state and/or federal government because when we do things like big road projects. That’s really shaky right now. We’re second-guessing our own projects because we want to make sure the state of California doesn’t go backwards on us because once we contract with somebody to do a job then we’re liable for that contract and then if the state says, “Just kidding,” then there’s no way for us to back it up, because these are big-dollar things.
I know the county is very aware of that, and Public Works projects are things that have to be done. You can defer maintenance for so long, then it just comes back to bite you. Public safety is another one.
IR: You mentioned the uniqueness of the Third District incorporating the largest reservation in the Owens Valley. Do you have a working relationship with tribal leaders at the Bishop Paiute Tribe?
RP: You know, only through my previous work as a staff person and so we’ve always had an excellent working relationship with staff-to-staff and that’s primarily what I’ve been involved with and encouraged over the years …
The city, the county, the tribe and the federal government, the BLM and Forest Service, are separate entities. There just needs to be some continuing efforts. Because efforts are being made and have been made and I think progress has been made, it just needs to continue. And I think it will.
In answer to your question, my goal as a supervisor now will be to sort of step into another realm and do a little bit more at that level. I’ll attend the tribal councils.
I’ll be meeting with them and offering them whatever we can do to increase and better increase the communication.

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