Sonoma County health director resigns week after National Heirloom Exposition controversy

The "Follow This Story" feature will notify you when any articles related to this story are posted.

When you follow a story, the next time a related article is published — it could be days, weeks or months — you'll receive an email informing you of the update.

If you no longer want to follow a story, click the "Unfollow" link on that story. There's also an "Unfollow" link in every email notification we send you.

This tool is available only to subscribers; please make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

Please note: This feature is available only to subscribers; make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

Subscribe

Sonoma County’s top health official abruptly resigned Tuesday after just 11 months on the job amid what several county officials said were his ongoing struggles to lead the county’s health department, its second largest.

Dr. Stephan Betz resigned after a closed-door meeting Tuesday in which the Board of Supervisors discussed his job performance for the third time since he took the helm of the 600-employee Department of Health Services in October.

His resignation, submitted after the performance review, came five days after a heavy public backlash over his department’s handling of a popular natural food event held last week at the county fairgrounds.

County officials, including all five supervisors, insisted Wednesday that the timing of Betz’s departure — after the controversy over county enforcement actions focused intense scrutiny on a division he oversaw — was merely coincidence.

“There is absolutely no connection,” said Supervisor Efren Carrillo, the board chairman. “No correlation between the two.”

Carrillo said of Betz’s short tenure at the department, “The match just didn’t seem to be there.” He did not elaborate on the circumstances that led to the unexpected resignation.

Supervisor David Rabbitt said problems had developed with Betz’s leadership in the demanding job.

“It’s been an ongoing issue trying to get by in the department and it has not been successful, so it was just time to move on,” Rabbitt said. “It’s not a single issue that he dropped the ball on ... Stephan could not bring along senior health department management and that was his primary job — to bring that whole team together.”

Sonoma County’s health department includes divisions overseeing public, environmental and behavioral health. The director’s job entails management of a $245 million budget and involves oversight of a wide range of health initiatives, from an expansion of countywide medical and mental health care services to monitoring of public health risks such as contagious diseases and environmental toxins. The department also provides animal control and is responsible for carrying out food safety inspections.

Betz did not return multiple calls and emails seeking comment Wednesday. His resignation, tendered in an email Tuesday afternoon to the Board of Supervisors, was effective Wednesday. The department’s employees were notified Tuesday evening in an email from the assistant health services director that acknowledged the sudden nature of the departure.

Four supervisors were present in the closed-session meeting about Betz’s job performance; Supervisor Susan Gorin was absent. The review was scheduled in late August, prior to the exposition, county officials noted.

Betz’s resignation was not requested as a part of the review, several supervisors said.

The county considers such personnel reviews confidential and does not make them public. Typically, department heads are subject to one such review a year, according to Supervisor Shirlee Zane.

Sources in and outside county government described Betz as an outsider who was faced with the difficult task of learning a new health care landscape. Previously, he served as deputy director for older and disabled adult services in Solano County, where he worked in county government for 12 years.

One executive at a local community-based organization said Betz was extremely “proactive” and always took the time to visit the organization’s offices.

Another official, Pedro Toledo, chief administrative officer for the Petaluma Health Center, said Betz “seemed very technically competent.” Toledo said Betz always seemed available when his organization reached out to him.

His departure adds to the turmoil at the health department, where environmental health inspectors endured heavy criticism for their actions last week at the National Heirloom Exposition. Now in its sixth year, the three-day event drew thousands of visitors to the county fairgrounds, where vendors hosted more than four dozen vendor booths showcasing traditional seeds, fruits and vegetables.

During the event, vendors and exhibitors complained to organizers that they were harassed and unfairly targeted by health inspectors, who organizers said issued dozens of fees and fines, as well as permit requirements that cost them hundreds of dollars.

Organizers said the treatment prompted some vendors to leave and would threaten the future of the exposition. Betz said at the time that county inspectors were simply following the law.

“California law requires permitting of food vendors, including those at a temporary food facility, who are giving away food or selling packaged or unpackaged goods,” Betz said in a statement at the end of the event last Thursday, making his only public comment on the matter.

In the aftermath of his resignation Wednesday, county officials said the account offered by organizers of the heirloom event was not accurate.

“Nothing has changed from last year and our inspectors didn’t take any actions that were different than last year,” said Barbie Robinson, the county’s assistant health director.

Robinson said of the 53 vendors who participated in the event, only 40 had the required permits. Three were issued fines ranging from $93 to $260, she said. The others either left the exposition, paid for permits or had their fees waived because they were military veterans.

Event organizers, speaking by phone from Missouri on Wednesday, repeated their claim that county inspectors were overbearing.

“People were coming up to me over and over again. Some were complaining, some were angry, some were crying and some just said ‘This is unbelievable,’ ” said Jere Gettle, co-founder of the event. “Every other year, Sonoma County and the health department has been so nice and helpful, but this year it just felt like they didn’t want us there.”

While insisting the controversy did not factor in Betz’s departure, Carrillo said the county appeared to have botched its communication with the exposition and its vendors.

“We need to have better and more clear channels of communication so we don’t have instances like this blow up again,” he said. “Our food and local farmers is something we should all be celebrating and not fighting over.”

Rabbitt, who said he never spoke to Betz about the heirloom festival inspections, defended the county’s handling of the event.

“Food-borne illness is a serious disease and the government has an obligation to track food that is sold or given out to the public,” he said. “If you’re a food vendor, it shouldn’t be a surprise when the inspectors come out and check.”

Carrillo and exposition organizers planned to meet Wednesday afternoon to discuss the event’s future in Sonoma County. Carrillo did not return calls requesting comment after that meeting.

“I do believe the organizers want to keep it here in Sonoma County, but we’re going to have to be flexible in our understanding of what needs to be addressed for that to happen,” he said earlier in the day.

Toledo, the Petaluma health center executive, said Betz’s departure leaves a vacuum that needs to be filled quickly.

“We need an interim health director who will keep Sonoma County at the forefront of public health,” he said.

Christina Cramer, the county’s human resources director, said she and the board hadn’t decided on a recruitment plan for the next health director. Betz succeeded Rita Scardaci, who held the position for 10 years prior to her retirement last year.

Staff Writer Martin Esinpoza contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 707-526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

Show Comment

Our Network

Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Emerald Report
Spirited Magazine