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Former Sonoma County parks director to serve as interim chief at Open Space District

Former Sonoma County Regional Parks Director Caryl Hart will take the helm of the county’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District while the search for a permanent general manager is underway.

Hart, who at one point dropped out of consideration for the interim position, expects to serve for about six months while a nationwide recruitment is underway for the top job at the 30-year-old, taxpayer-funded agency.

Her appointment as interim executive director was announced Tuesday, more than six weeks after county supervisors, who double as directors of the district, first began considering her and two other county employees as potential short-term replacements for Bill Keene, who is stepping down after 11 years as general manager.

That process became bogged down amid some controversy and lobbying by stakeholders, including the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, which in recent years has voiced discontent over district priorities and spending. There was some consternation, as well, that the Board of Supervisors had not considered internal district candidates for the post.

Hart, 62, said earlier this month she had hoped to help the county during what could be a difficult transition but had withdrawn when the selection became drawn out and political.

“I felt in any way if I was causing the problem, I wanted to remove the problem,” she said.

Then last week, when supervisors met in closed session to consider the position yet again, they reached out to her and she agreed to accept if she had their unanimous support.

“I’m really glad that the whole process is over, and we can move forward,” she said Tuesday.

Hart is a well-known figure in land conservation, having championed the district in its earliest days and campaigned for its reauthorization when the quarter-cent tax that supports district operations and acquisitions last came up for a vote in 2006.

She was a state parks commissioner before she took the helm of the county’s Regional Parks Department, where her tenure spanned seven years, ending in 2017. She was appointed in 2019 to the California Coastal Commission.

She has a law degree from the University of San Francisco and a doctorate in environmental science, policy and management from U.C. Berkeley.

Board Chairwoman Susan Gorin said Tuesday that supervisors liked what Hart had to say about her goals for the district and value her deep knowledge of the agency, which often partners with county parks on new land acquisitions and preserves. Hart also has served on the district’s advisory committee.

“The board decided that a good way to move forward was to appoint an interim who had no interest in pursuing a permanent position for the district,” Gorin said.

She would not confirm that Hart was a unanimous choice, only that “she had board support to move forward.”

Gorin said she expected the board to meet with stakeholder groups over the next few weeks and likely start a national search for a permanent district chief in January.

The district has protected about 122,000 acres of land since its founding, including farms and dairies, recreational lands, community separators, scenic corridors and wildlife habitat. It has a staff of 29 and an annual budget of about $55 million.

“We’re an amazing organization, known nationwide and throughout California,” Keene said. “There should be a plethora of candidates lining up to do this job, based on our track record.”

Keene, 51, is leaving to work more broadly on issues of climate change and social equity but had agreed to stay on until early next year so a temporary replacement could be found.

Hart is set to take over Dec. 1. Her salary will be the same as Keene’s on an annual basis — $187,152 a year, county Communications Manager Paul Gullixson said.

“I’ve had conversations with Caryl already, and she seems excited about the work and is excited to sit down with each of the managers and as a group, and really begin working with them and forging that relationship,” Keene said.

News of Keene’s resignation was not even public when supervisors invited Hart and two other county employees to interview for the interim post. No internal district candidates were considered at that point, though an agency manager was brought in for an interview last week.

During comments in early October, Hart lauded Keene’s “incredible job for the county” but emphasized the board’s interest in addressing long-standing tensions with certain agricultural stakeholders, primarily the Farm Bureau.

She spoke of digging in to understand the source of its dissatisfaction and better balancing the interests of the district’s recreational, conservation and agricultural interests, especially given the growing challenges of climate change.

“I think the challenge for the board now is, how can we do that?” Hart said. “And I would say that does require recalibration.”

The Farm Bureau continues to press its long-standing case that most of the agency’s acquisition funds should be spent to protect working farmland. The group’s heavy footprint in discussions about Keene’s replacement raised alarm among some conservation leaders.

Yet Tawny Tesconi, the Farm Bureau’s executive director, voiced disappointment Tuesday with Hart’s appointment.

“I would say, in general, we would hope there was a person more supportive of agriculture than Caryl Hart, if they were going to appoint someone for a six-month term,” she said.

She expressed particular dissatisfaction with a selection process she said lacked transparency and an opportunity for other candidates to apply.

“Caryl Hart is a very talented person, and she’s got her hands full as a member of the Coastal Commission, and so I just hope that she does listen to the agricultural community and other stakeholder communities out there … and she doesn’t make major shifts or changes in the mission or the work of the district without allowing the person who’s going to have to follow those changes or manage those changes being on board,” Tesconi said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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