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The Man Behind San Mateo County Parks

By Susana Montes | 15 Nov 2009

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SAN MATEO COUNTY–In the midst of San Mateo County’s budget crunch, David Holland knows his department might be the first to face cuts next year–And yet, in the middle of the storm, he remains calm.

Although the county is facing massive shortfalls primarily due to the recession and reduction of property and sales taxes, Holland, the director of the County Parks Department, appears a man in control. His zen-like personality bewilders many in his office, especially those who fear their budget might be slashed too severely due to the county’s projected $100 million deficit.

Holland submitted three different scenarios of cuts – 10, 20 and 30 percent – to the Board of Supervisors in late September. Since then, he has been working non-stop to ameliorate reductions. His motto: “Persistence and hard work take you anywhere.”

“I am biased towards action,” he said, driving his car to meet with a group of community of users at Golden Gate Park. “You measure success by what you accomplish on the ground. Persistence in a public system is important. I don’t ever take no for an answer. I have to work on it.”

His relaxed appearance contrasts with his strong personality. He wears an earring, a tiny stud in his left ear, and dresses casually–jeans and a guayabera shirt.

A pragmatic 60 year-old and experienced public official, Holland began his career as the county director of Parks five years ago, after he retired from long career in the National Forestry Service, where he worked as the director of recreation for 15 years. He now oversees regional solutions to the county’s nearly 16,000 acres of open space, including numerous trails and 18 separate parks.

Although he is technically “retired” and receives a pension, he keeps working to support his family.

“I have seven kids–two of them are in college,” he said, parking his car backwards to leave quickly from a late night meeting in Half Moon Bay. “I can’t afford to retire.”

Throughout his career, Holland has seen what massive budget reductions can do–but he says he is used to them. His calm demeanor helps keep his staff focused, said Sara Medina, the Parks Department’s budget director. He is one of the guiding forces at the county’s executive level and is trying to minimize the tension and fear from an entire organization, she said.

Holland’s pragmatic approach is a result of experience gained while climbing up through the ranks of the political bureaucracy, Medina said. His first job in the public sector was analyzing bugs.

“Beetles were his passion,” Medina laughed. “He was an entomologist and he worked his way up from that to the highest ranks of the federal system. Then, he came here.”

Although he delegates administrative details to two park superintendents, Holland works until late hours and on weekends, overseeing the staff at the headquarters and meeting with community members and influential figures in the county. He doesn’t have to work on Fridays, but he says he uses it to network.

“He is playing an important role in helping the county and the new county manager to find their way in what, for us, is uncharted territory,” Medina said. “He understands the budget process and knows what is reasonable and how we can move forward to make things happen.”

While many departments and public employees are defending their turf and budgets, he says he understands county directors and unions are looking out for their departments and agenda. But he only expects a 10 percent reduction. If need be, he says, he would cut back costs at headquarters first, instead of cutting services on the ground.

Richard Gordon, the vice-president of the Board of Supervisors, is on Holland’s side.

“He is my supporter,” Holland said. “Unions are saying that management should take a 3 percent cut. I work a lot of hours and don’t get paid by the hour. And that’s fine, that’s what I agreed to do. I kind of kid and say: ‘You can take 10 percent of my Saturdays and Sundays, I don’t get paid on those days, so take that’. ”

Holland’s work and influence extends at the county level, with the parks commission, the parks foundation and the numerous “friends groups” who volunteer in each park, Medina said. He also helps raise grant money for trail services and meets regularly with the community, when there are new demands.

But although he faces constant hurdles at the community and county level, he knows what it reasonably takes to get from A to B, Medina said.

“He wears an enormous number of hats,” she said. “I cannot express enough how impressive he is as a department head. He is savvy and has vision, experience, knowledge– he listens to a problem and sees what the issue is. He helps people who can’t see the solution, find it.”

For example, when constituents ask for new park services–like building a new frisbee golf course in Pescadero Creek–he meets with them and assesses the feasibility and scope of the projects .

Mary DeLong, president of the Friends of the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, a volunteer group in San Mateo County, says Holland is always responsive to her group’s concerns. He has taken a significant role in the mid-coast of San Mateo County to manage parks as a cohesive unit, she said.

“He is one of the best directors that department has had. I have been impressed with his ability to take people’s opinions and answer questions very well,” DeLong said. “He is good at understanding the different needs of the constituents. I have nothing to say against him.”

Some groups are not that tolerant, Holland said. Each time an issue comes up between them, he has to analyze the best way to solve it, while taking into account the county’s budget or how the issue might be thought out by the Board of Supervisors.

“Sometimes it may get complex,” he said. “People have a lot of opinions on what should be done in these parks.”

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