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.

Robinson was paid $314,250 in 2020, including a base salary of $250,950, overtime of $56,124, and $7,176 in cash allowance, according to county records provided on March 15, after this story was published. The overtime pay was authorized by the Board of Supervisors as part of its declaration of emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic, county officials said.

One of her first tasks was overhauling the embattled mental health division, one of three under her control at Health Services. It was faulted by the Board of Supervisors in advance of her arrival for what Hopkins on Wednesday called a “fiscal catastrophe of deficit spending.”

“She came in and she assessed what the problems were and she led the charge on a new revenue measure that will revolutionize mental health care delivery in Sonoma County,” Hopkins said, referring to the passage by voters in November of Measure O, which raised sales taxes in the county to boost local spending on mental health and homeless services.

Supervisor David Rabbitt said Robinson helped guide the departments she led through crises big and small. As the first COVID-19 cases hit the North Bay, Robinson was still in her initial weeks as the new interim head of the Community Development Commission, charged with disbanding the county’s largest-ever homeless camp, on the Joe Rodota Trail, and resettling dozens of its roughly 250 residents.

The leadership merger made sense at the time, Rabbitt said. “You had CDC on the homeless side with services but it was a health crisis as well,” he said.

But at least one county supervisor, Chris Coursey, believes that affordable housing, homelessness and the local pandemic response are too many responsibilities for just one person.

“It concerns me that the three top issues on everybody’s agenda fall under one department head at the county,” he said in a December interview before he took office. “It’s too much, and I would like to see that changed.”

Some of the moves made by Robinson to reform the behavioral health division were particularly unpopular. That division was slated for a number of controversial cuts that were ultimately postponed or minimized through last-minute reversals by the Board of Supervisors.

Across Health Services under Robinson’s watch, at least 17 top officials, including two health officers and two assistant health officers, have stepped down between March 2018 and March 2020 — a high rate of turnover that did not escape the Board of Supervisors’ notice.

“She’s ruffled a few feathers along the way but you know what, change is hard for some folks,” Rabbitt said.

“I like Barbie’s straightforward approach and always have,” he added. “She’ll tell you what she thinks.”

Robinson also crossed swords with city officials and county Sheriff Mark Essick over what her critics quietly say is a unilateral approach to big decisions.

Essick’s complaints broke into public view last May when he questioned in sharp words the scope and purpose of the pandemic public health orders and the little communication he said was flowing his way from top county health officials.

Supervisors intervened and brokered a deal that promised better communication from the department led by Robinson, but Mase said her office had always been transparent, communicative and collaborative.

“Nothing’s going to change from the Public Heath Department’s perspective,” she said at the time. Robinson offered no public comment on the matter.

Robinson on Wednesday said she makes no apology for her commitment to getting the job done, and she suggested that some may not be used to taking orders from a Black woman — one of only two Black female department heads in county government.

Navigating issues related to race and gender have been a challenge for her, she said. "For many people I was their first Black boss, their first female boss,“ she said. ”I do think that whatever that raises in terms of how some may have been socialized, I feel like there were learning opportunities for everyone.“

Her ascendant career stems in large part from her life story — the youngest of nine children from a poor family on the south side of Chicago. They lived in substandard federally subsidized housing, where one of her sisters contracted lead poisoning. Racial justice and equity have been keystones of her career ever since, she said.

In addition to her law degree from George Washington University, she earned her bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College and a master’s degree in public policy from Georgetown University.

In the letter she sent out Wednesday morning to colleagues, Robinson said that Health Services Assistant Director Tina Rivera and Community Development Commission Assistant Director Emilia Gabriele were set to lead those agencies on an interim basis.

In fact, several county officials pointed out Wednesday, such appointments are made by the Board of Supervisors.

“It’s the board’s decision, but you know what, it’s typical Barbie that she would write that in there,” Rabbitt said. It's valuable for an agency head to consider their successor, he said. Barbie is “putting her opinion out there and that’s a good thing.“

Robinson’s departure in two months gives ample time, Coursey hoped, for a smooth transition in both agencies she heads. “I trust that she’s going to be with us in putting together plans for this transition and she’ll help us make this as smooth as possible,” he said.

Robinson said she considers among her proudest achievements putting together a strong leadership team, including some names Hopkins rattled off Wednesday: Dr. Mase, Dr. Kismet Baldwin, the deputy health officer; Dr. Urmila Shende, the county’s vaccine chief; and Ken Tasseff, the vaccine coordinator.

“When I came, I inherited many operational challenges within the department,” Robinson said. “And building a team, a strong team to lead and administer the programs that we oversee is a really important accomplishment.”

Staff Writer Austin Murphy and Petaluma Argus-Courier Editor Tyler Silvy contributed to this story.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been revised to specify that the Department of Health Services is the second largest in Sonoma County government, behind Human Services, and to note that Barbie Robinson’s law degree was from George Washington University. She has a masters in public policy from Georgetown University.

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