By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

A great deal of the decision-making that impacts the lives and livelihoods of Sacramento County’s population of 1.5 million happens in Room 1450 of 700 H Street — but most people are far removed from what takes place there.

The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors wield a lot of power. So do others you may not see at the dais for their monthly meetings. That became all too clear in 2020 when The Sacramento OBSERVER revealed that the Board of Supervisors had given the bulk of its federal COVID-19 recovery funds to the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department to balance its budget.

The five supervisors at the time said they didn’t know that had occurred and then-chair Phil Serna demanded the county executive, Nav Gill, explain himself. The community at large also voiced its outrage, among them several African American activists and advocates, who called the money move a “bait and switch” that hurt the county’s most vulnerable residents.

At the same time, Gill landed in hot water for holding in-person meetings that didn’t follow COVID-19 safety measures, the same precautions officials were touting to the public as the best way to stop the spread of the deadly virus. 

Reports also surfaced of several past and present employees accusing Gill of creating a toxic work environment, including making derogatory comments to women and other people of color.  He also planned to fire Dr. Olivia Kasirye, the County’s Black public health officer who has been lauded for her leadership during the pandemic. Members of the Black community rallied around Dr. Kasirye after Gill attempted to intimidate her into backing up his CARES money assertions during a County Board meeting. 

The Board voted 3-2 to place Gill on leave in November 2020 while the discrimination investigation was conducted. He was cleared in August. Karen Kramer, the lawyer hired to vet the complaints, said Gill escaped sanction because he was an “equal opportunity bully.”

Gill reportedly left with $209,000 in his pocket and was replaced by Ann Edwards, the County’s former Director of Human Assistance. Edwards was appointed to the county executive position on a permanent basis in late August and officially started on September 14. The Sacramento OBSERVER recently sat down with her for a conversation on moving forward, being responsive to the needs of the community, and the importance of transparency and inclusion.

Before last year, a lot of people didn’t even know there was a county executive, let alone what that person is responsible for. After Gill was allowed to make the seemingly unilateral decision to fund the Sheriff’s Department with the CARES money, the public wondered who really was in charge. 

“I report directly to all five board members,” Edwards explains. “It is the board’s responsibility to set policy and direction and it is my responsibility to implement the policy and direction that they have implemented. I work with multiple departments and department heads for deputy county executive to make that happen, to ensure that we are operationalizing the policies that are important to the board and that the board has directed us to implement.”

Where The Money Resides

One of her biggest responsibilities is to recommend a budget. Because of that, Edwards has a lot of people watching her.

A group of local African American leaders sent a letter to Edwards and the Board of Supervisors in July, detailing concerns about how the County will be spending $300 million in new federal coronavirus relief funds through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). The County has received $150 million and will get another $150 million at a later date. In the letter, leaders outlined strategies and made five recommendations for where they think the money should go — health equity, housing and the unhoused community, economic development, youth services, and under-resourced communities.

The County contracted the consulting and auditing firm Deloitte to provide guidance on what the communities “greatest needs” are. The survey Deloitte put out highlighted eight priority areas. Edwards says the priorities are in line with the call for action from Black leaders formerly known as the CARES for the People Coalition. Who the County selected to conduct the survey as well as those they surveyed raised concerns. Leaders countered that the process didn’t take diverse voices into account.  

“You’ve got to invest in the outcomes that you want to achieve. This can’t be done anymore by having outside institutions come into our communities, Black, brown or otherwise, and do the work,” said Sierra Health Foundation CEO Chet Hewitt.  “We know who was most impacted and so what we’re saying is those places and populations that have been most impacted, have got to be the first places where you start to reinvest.”
Hewitt says the Black community will continue to advocate on its own behalf “regardless of who is sitting in whatever seat.”

“This is not about a personality,” he continued. “This is about an approach. We believe it’s in alignment with the policy goals of ARPA and what’s needed in Sacramento to make it a healthier, more equitable community and region.”

Because she wasn’t working for the Board when Gill and others spent the CARES money, Edwards said she can’t speak to that decision. “I truly believe in public engagement and transparency on how we spend money, so I would have probably done it this way, or something very similar, just because that’s the way I operate.”

Edwards says that the County is employing a “completely different process” to disperse the ARPA dollars than it did with the CARES money. “We’re learning as we go, because this is a very large pot of money. We did far more outreach than we’ve ever done and clearly the community felt it wasn’t enough, but we had multiple hearings and we had outreach materials. We’ve never done that before.”

Edwards says she has also been outreaching to local Black stakeholders including some of those who were most vocal during the CARES money fallout. “I will continue to do so because I think that’s a really important piece of developing trust in the community, that people know who I am and they feel comfortable talking to me.“

Edwards insists that she’s not doing so “in reaction” to her predecessor. “I’ve been with the County for a very long time, over 20 years,” Edwards explained. “I’ve led multiple departments, I have always worked with the community, worked with partners. It’s just something that I think is important to doing the work that we do. The county can’t do what we do alone. We do it in partnership with many organizations, with many groups and many individuals and I believe that’s critically important to the success of what we’re trying to do with the county.”

Diversity Matters

Edwards is the first woman to serve as County executive. 

“The most important thing about being in this position is doing the job well, whether I’m a man or a woman, or whatever I look like. That is my number one priority,” she said. “But since being appointed, I’ve received emails, notes and cards from women in the organization that say it’s made a difference for them and the conversations they have with their daughters about what they are capable of doing. That does make me feel good. I think that’s really, really a good thing for women and girls in this community.”

There are currently no African Americans on the County Board of Supervisors and there hasn’t been since the late civic icon Grantland Johnson was the first to serve from 1987-1993. 

“I think it’s important to have diversity everywhere,” Edwards said. “It’s hard to control diversity in some areas, particularly with elected offices, because they are elected by the people in their district. Would it be nice to have more diversity? Yes, but that has to happen with the electorate.”

People have to run, Edwards says. She also touched on diversity in Sacramento County’s employee ranks.  “If you look at our entire workforce in the County, we are representative of the racial makeup of the community,” she said. “Where we’re lacking is in leadership positions. You have to run to be elected (to Board positions). The same is true for leadership positions in the  County, you have to apply to be appointed. 

“We’re beginning to look at ways to increase our applicant pool, or to make those pools more diverse, so that we have an opportunity to have a more diverse management ranks.”

Many have argued that the lack of diversity at the top level is what created friction between Gill and Dr. Kasirye, saying that some can’t take direction from a Black woman. 

“I wasn’t here. I wasn’t in any of the conversations around decisions that were made at that time. I think it would be unfair for me to speculate since I was not in the room,” Edwards said.  “What I do know is, I value Dr. Kasirye and her team. I think they’re doing a good job. I have a good relationship with Dr.  Kasirye and I have confidence in her work and I will continue to partner with her as we continue to combat this pandemic.”