Top Sonoma County health official Barbie Robinson to become public health director for Texas county
Sonoma County’s top health official is stepping down to take a high-profile post in Texas, an unexpected departure that leaves a major vacancy at the top of local government during a critical stage in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic.
Barbie Robinson, who since 2016 has led the Department of Health Services, Sonoma County’s second largest agency, at more than 580 employees, confirmed Wednesday that she would be leaving her post in May to become the public health director in Harris County, which takes in Houston and more than 4.7 million residents.
Robinson, 51, an attorney by training and seasoned government administrator, has since last year also led the county’s homelessness and affordable housing agency, marking the most demanding chapter in a five-year tenure punctuated by massive floods, the catastrophic wildfires of 2017, 2019 and 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Her next job, in the third most populous county in the nation, will allow her to address long-standing inequities in health and wellness in that part of the county, just as she has in Sonoma County, she said.
“It was a big decision, it was a hard decision,” Robinson said. “I came to Sonoma County to address health disparities and the social determinants of health. (Harris County officials) are making a very big push in prioritizing that work and I love the challenge.”
Robinson, who was hired in 2016 in part to solve a budget crisis in the county’s behavioral health division, has carved out a reputation as a forceful leader — arguably Sonoma County’s most powerful bureaucrat, with a wider portfolio than any other appointed official.
Along with Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer, she has served as one of the key appointed county leaders directing local efforts to combat the coronavirus and its fallout. She helped forge public health orders that reined in public and private life to curb the virus spread, oversaw the rollout of COVID-19 testing and patient surge plans and has sought to smooth the rocky local vaccine campaign that began just over two months ago.
Her second county post, as head of the Community Development Commission, was added early last year by the Board of Supervisors at the height of the homeless emergency on the Joe Rodota Trail. It put her in charge of the three most pressing issues confronting the county as 2020 unfolded: rampant homelessness, the shortage of affordable housing and the pandemic.
Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, the board chair, said she was grateful for Robinson’s leadership “through the most difficult times our county has faced.”
“It has literally been trial by fire, flood and plague and she has led the department through it all,” she said.
Still, Robinson has been regarded as an imperial figure within county government and been faulted repeatedly for failing to communicate her plans to fellow county officials and leaders across local government. She caught many of those people by surprise again late Tuesday night, when news first hit of her pending departure.
Her hiring was announced on Twitter by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the county’s chief executive.
“I pride myself on decorum and being respectful and responsive,” Robinson said of the sudden announcement, which made the late-night news in Texas. “I was not expecting it. When the world found out, I found out.”
Robinson called Hopkins and texted Supervisor Susan Gorin. Supervisor Chris Coursey found out from County Administrator Sheryl Bratton. On Wednesday morning, Robinson then sent out an email letting her colleagues know she’d be leaving.
Hopkins said supervisors will likely be meeting Tuesday in closed session to discuss how they’ll go about filling the position.
Replacing her will not be easy, said Mase, who joined the county a year ago this week. Alongside Robinson, she has been the more public-facing of the duo leading the county’s health response to the pandemic.
“It’s definitely big shoes to fill,” Mase said. “But it’s a well-oiled machine that she’s leaving, and I’m confident that we won’t skip a beat…not that we won’t incredibly miss Barbie’s input and her guidance, but we’re not going to skip a beat.”
Robinson had two decades of experience with the federal government, at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in Atlanta and San Francisco, when she was hired by Sonoma County in February 2016. She served as the interim health services director before her full appointment in early 2017.