COVID-19: The Role of Counties (with Greg Devereaux)

In this episode, the UCR School of Public Policy discusses the different roles and responsibilities of counties versus cities in general, but especially amid a pandemic with retired CEO of San Bernardino County, Greg Devereaux.

JUNE 16, 2020

In this episode, students from the UC Riverside School of Public Policy talk with retired CEO of San Bernardino County, Greg Devereaux about the different roles and responsibilities of counties versus cities in general, but especially amid a pandemic.

About Greg Devereaux:

Greg Devereaux has served in state and local government for nearly 40 years, holding various administrative leadership positions, including city manager in the cities of Fontana and Ontario. He was also the former Chief Executive Officer of San Bernardino where he helped the Board of Supervisors lead the County in a new direction and helped to stabilize county government finances, increase infrastructure maintenance, and restore community programs. Since his retirement, Mr. Devereaux has opened his own consulting firm working with both public and private clients. Mr. Devereaux is also a member of the advisory board for the University of California, Riverside School of Public Policy.

Learn more about Greg Devereaux via

Podcast Highlights:

“Counties, in relation to the state, we are arms of the state...if the state issues a public health order, counties have to follow that order...but counties can actually be more strict than the state.”

-       Greg Devereaux on the topic of the relationship between the counties of California and the state of California during this time of crisis.

“One of the things that everyone acknowledges that went wrong, both at a state and federal level, stockpiles of personal protective equipment needed in the healthcare system..were allowed to get outdated and some of the equipment was sold off.”

-       Greg Devereaux on the topic of the biggest gaps witnessed in our federal government, in relation to the response to COVID-19.

“I do think that, perhaps, business and government will have learned that remote working can be equally or more productive and has some side benefits like cleaner air and less congested freeways.”

-       Greg Devereaux on the topic of the new temporary and permanent changes post COVID-19 within our government and societies.


Greg Devereaux (Retired CEO of San Bernardino County)


Maddie Bunting (UCR Public Policy Major, Dean’s Chief Ambassador)

Daisy Gonzalez (UCR Public Policy Major, Dean’s Ambassador)

Music by:

Samuel Roberts (UCR Public Policy ‘20)

This is a production of the UCR School of Public Policy:

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  • COVID-19: The Role of Counties (with Greg Devereaux)

    Introduction: Welcome to the official podcast of the University of California Riverside School of Public Policy. I'm your host, Maddie Bunting. Through this podcast series, I will be talking with various voices in the public policy world about today's pressing societal issues. Join me to learn about potential solutions and interventions for today's biggest policy challenges. Be they about health, the economy, the environment, or other societal problems impacting families in your community or the international community. Joining me today is Dean’s Brand Ambassador Daisy Gonzalez, and retired CEO of San Bernardino County, Greg Devereaux. Mr. Devereaux served in state and local government for over 40 years, holding a variety of leadership positions, including city manager of Fontana and Ontario. Since retiring as Chief Executive Officer of San Bernardino County, California, Mr. Devereaux has opened his own consulting firm, working with both public and private clients. Mr. Devereaux is also a member of the advisory board at the UCR School of Public Policy. 

    Maddie Bunting: So Mr. Devereaux, you are the former Chief Executive Officer of the County of San Bernardino. As I'm sure you know, the Board of Supervisors recently requested a new health order stating that face coverings are no longer required but highly recommended in San Bernardino County, do you believe this will allow the county to reopen businesses more quickly? Do you have any thoughts on this new order?

    Greg Devereaux: I think that the county, like all counties in the state, are trying very hard to balance the public health needs right now with the impacts on the economy and the needs for people to be working and gaining an income and supporting their families. And so all of these choices are unfortunately difficult choices, in part because as I'm sure you all have observed, there isn't a lot of times, a lot of data or information upon which to base the choices. We don't have enough information about this virus yet because of the lack of tracking and tracing and testing and to be able to predict how actions will affect it. So they are proceeding cautiously, I know following the state guidelines and trying to stay within them while at the same time suggesting to the state that there may be other approaches that should be explored that will allow businesses to open more quickly. I know that getting them open by getting them open safely is on the top of their minds having talked with and conferred with several of the supervisors, they are trying their very best to balance those competing, though sometimes competing interests. 

    Daisy Gonzalez: Talking about the board, when speaking of the Board of Supervisors, the Board of Supervisors also recently adopted a readiness and reopening plan and plans to seek the governor's consent, right. So we want to start, you know, implementing plans and adopting plans that are, you know, talking about reopening, right? Sort of getting back into it, getting back into society. But with that in mind, can you give us a glimpse into the relationship between the counties of California and the state of California. You know, do you believe that these relationships may look different during the time of crisis, especially when trying to implement these plans, right? When we're talking about policies, what is the relationship between those two? 

    Greg Devereaux: Well, it's a great question, Daisy. Many people don't understand the roles of counties. They are kind of a unique level of government in our federal scheme of government, we all have a pretty good idea of what the federal government does in terms of programs, the National Defense, and those kinds of activities. We have a pretty good idea of what the state government does and what the state government is responsible for. We pretty much know what our cities do in terms of providing police and fire and paramedics and parks and streets and those kinds of things. But when you ask people what counties do and they're not always sure. And I will tell you as a long-time city manager who then went to the county as cities, we don't have a very good idea of what counties do, and I don't think that most people do. And so I'll digress for just a second. Cities are independent municipal corporations. So they are independent corporate entities under law. Counties, on the other hand, are subdivisions of the state and are not corporations. So counties largely are assigned a set of responsibilities by the state, like the county sheriff, County Jail, probation, the district attorney, those kinds of functions. The county jails, county prosecution, and a lot of cross cutting services. So counties are kind of in four main areas of business, you would say. Their biggest line of business is the social safety net. So real dollars coming through the state, implemented at the local level, things like food stamps come through counties. Counties, then their second biggest line of business is the one I just mentioned, law and justice. And then their third or group of cross cutting services for all jurisdictions like the county assessor and the tax collector. Those are for all jurisdictions, districts, special districts, cities. They perform them for all those. And then their last line of business is the one that cities are most familiar with and that's municipal services, police, fire, et cetera. For county unincorporated areas. Having said that, in San Bernardino County, the county would actually be the largest municipal government if you counted all of the people that live in the unincorporated areas. So the biggest city in San Bernardino County is just over 200 thousand, city of San Bernardino though. Fontana closely eclipses that probably in the next census. Well, but the county has over 400 residents in those county unincorporated areas. So even though it is the county's smallest line of business, those municipal services would make it the largest municipal service provider in the county. And if I may, I'll digress just for a moment longer because I think that and people don't really understand the size of our counties and cities in California. Riverside County is the 11th, just County by population, in the United States. San Bernardino County is the 12th largest by population. And together, those two counties that people refer to as the Inland Empire, and that's out of over 3 thousand counties, together, we are larger in population than 25 states. People don’t understand that magnitude. When I was City Manager in Ontario and you know, there are over 5 thousand cities in the United States, there are actually thousands of cities in the United States. Ontario, is the 150th largest city in the United States. We don’t really understand the magnitude of our cities and counties. Now, counties in relation to the state, where arms of the state. And now, that doesn't mean that counties don't have independent authority. And if the state issues a public health order, counties have to follow that order. But because they also have a public health authority, we have public health authority at the local level, counties can actually be more strict than the state. They can't be less strict, but they can be more strict. So part of the reason that the county is providing that plan is because the Board members being in touch with the community, understand that a lot of people want to get back to work. And so what they are trying to communicate to the state is state we understand your roles, we understand your guidance. We certainly don't intend to deviate from that because that is the state guidance and that controls us. But here our circumstances are unique to our population and both Riverside County Board of Supervisors and San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors have indicated to the state that they think there are some unique circumstances that the state may not have considered. And this would allow us to open some businesses a little more quickly. 

    Daisy Gonzalez: I would even say, you know, earlier Maddie and I were discussing the differences that the counties, you know, the different actions that the counties are taking, LA County had come out with, you know, we're still staying with their strict stay-at-home order. And you can see the strictness and the different ways that how you said, you know, they're taking these actions for the purpose of that specific population. So it's very interesting to see now…

    Greg Devereaux: And to your point, you know, you've looked at some of the rural experiences very little, very few cases, very few deaths. Some of them have decided to open things more quickly then the state would desire. Now they're not necessarily going against strict edicts in some, in some cases, the state has provided guidance, not a strict rule. And those counties have decided to open a little more freely than the state would like, but they aren't necessarily violating a state edict. 

    Maddie Bunting: Interesting. I agree with you. Many people, including myself, are not aware of exactly, you know what differentiates city and county, regional, and state. It's quite complicated, but I completely agree with what you said that, you know, we are so concerned about public health, but we, the government and everyone is also concerned about the economy and getting back to work. And you know, unemployment rates have risen dramatically and especially in California, we are seeing a tremendous loss in revenue. So I wanted to ask…

    Greg Devereaux: Throughout the United States and certainly in California at a state level and local level, revenues have declined precipitously very, very quickly. And the projections are that the revenue loss will be worse than governments experienced during the Great Recession. And it will potentially last longer. And that's going to have tremendous local impacts. Every city manager that I know that I've spoken with people at the county, that I've spoken with, are anticipating that they will have to cut the number of employees, whether they furlough them or actually lay them out off outright, that they will have to reduce the number of employees in order to balance their budgets. In both the state, unlike the federal government, both the state and the county and the cities, have to balance their budgets every year. It's a requirement. And so the federal government can run deficits and you can't do that at the state or local level. 

    Maddie Bunting: So actually, that is new to me. I have heard a lot of comparisons to the Great Recession, but I have not heard that projections are that it's going to be worse. So for that, you know, someone who had so much experience in local and state government, how would we if this is long term, other than, I mean, unfortunately, to your point, it does seem like a lot of people may not get their jobs back. Do you see maybe unemployment, you know, will California be able to give so many people unemployment for a prolonged amount of time?

    Greg Devereaux: Well they will, but the question becomes what’s the cost? Because with unemployment, for instance, the state, during the Great Recession, California, as a number of states did, borrowed from the federal government and to meet unemployment payments to people within the state. The state of California had just gotten done repaying the debt, the borrowing it did during the Great Recession for unemployment compensation just this last year. And here we are having to borrow up again already. So it does have a longer term impact when you have to finance those kinds of activities. 

    Daisy Gonzalez: In your opinion, you know, everything that's going on, where can you find the biggest gaps or at least what should we know, where are the biggest gaps in our federal government in relation to such a response to COVID-19? And do you believe the US has reacted well to this crisis? Has had the right strategies to take the right actions in response to this pandemic?

    Greg Devereaux: Well, it's been a great study. To your point. Not knowing what various levels of government do. A lot of people don't think about or remember their high school civics, that we are a federal system, we live within federalism. In public health, the federal government can't direct the states. They can give advice, they can give guidance and I think that some of the difficulties in a federal system emerged or certainly were apparent in the response. And there are things that the federal government can do. Most of those things have to do with coordination. I think that there could have been earlier action across the United States, in many states and at a federal level. The other thing that the steps that had been taken in response to earlier public health crises, in terms of preparedness and stockpiles, preparedness definitely is a federal role. Now at the state and local role, all levels bear some responsibility. But in the Federal, in the emergency management system in the United States, each level is at first supposed to take care of itself and then if it has difficulties, it goes to the next level up. So the city, if it can't take care of an emergency or a disaster, turns to the state and the state turns to the region, in the region turns to the federal government. The entire world is confronted with a big problem. There's not enough resources for each successive layer to take care of all of the layers below it. The role it can play is before something happens, in preparedness and during, even if there's not enough resource, it can help the communication and coordination. So some of the areas of criticism, and I will say these are not necessarily my criticisms, I mean, one of the things that you do after any kind of disaster is you do an after action report and to assess how you dealt with how the incident how did you perform, what went right, what went wrong? And there's need to do a lot of that. But one of the things I think that everyone acknowledges that went wrong, both at a state and federal level... Stockpiles of personal protective equipment and equipment needed in the healthcare system had been built up quite a while ago. And in both instances, and during successive administrations, both at a state and federal level, those stockpiles were allowed to get outdated. Some of the equipment was sold off. The State of California had four fully equipped field hospitals, huge field hospitals that could have treated thousands of people that were sold off. And at the federal level, I recall hearing that some of the early ventilator shipments turned out that the ventilators were out of date and non-functioning. Now, I am careful not to easily criticize having been within the system. I understand the pressures and one that I would like to mention is that the voters who put elected officials in office do not always incentivize or reward responsible behavior. And let me give example level, local level. There are very few votes that you get for maintaining the infrastructure that nobody sees that's under the streets, the sewers and the water system. But build a soccer park, some soccer fields, you're going to get votes. The constituents don’t come out and say, I want to know what you're doing about maintaining our water lines. But they do come out and say, you know, we've agreed to an office and we want to soccer apart where our kids can play. Well, that's what preparedness is. Those former administrations, both state and federal level reacted to the crisis that had occurred. And I forget which flu or which pandemic it was, but in both instances, they built real stockpiles of equipment and personal protective gear. And over successive administrations, when times were better and people tended to forget those crises, they let them deteriorate to the point that they were virtually unusable and certainly weren't sufficient for what we're experiencing. Downturn Like the Great Recession, it's very hard to get elected officials and even professional staff to do all of those things that may be good governance and responsible governance when it's a matter of trading off to keep police officers on the street. Part of what I would suggest to you is that as someone who has been a practicing government administrator my entire life and career, you always want to see and would like to see more thoughtful public engagement and dialogue about what the priorities really should be. And you always hope that the public will reward good governance. But that doesn't always happen. 

    Maddie Bunting: Yes, and I think that's why who you elect is so important and why voting is so important because we’re seeing during this time how important and influential the government is and how many policies really do go into effect and need to be implemented and that affects you directly as an individual. 

    Greg Devereaux: And it affects as we're seeing in an incident like this, life in our country and in our world, in our county and in every single city. And the policy choices that are made are critical to being able to address a complex situation like this Well, and it's the policy choices beforehand, during and after that all need to be paid attention to. 

    Maddie Bunting: Yes. And shifting gears a little bit. As I mentioned, you're the city manager of Ontario and Ontario has an International Airport. If you could speak with us about how small regional airports like Ontario are affected by this outbreak. And do you believe larger airports, such as LAX, are experiencing the same impacts in all airports? 

    Greg Devereaux: The latter…  All airports unless they are general aviation airports, but all public airports that are and have passenger flights that are being affected in the same way. The number of passenger flights across the country have been reduced significantly and the number of people flying has dropped significantly. Many flights that are nearly empty or certainly don't even cover the cost of the flight. And, and all of that activity affects the revenue of all airports, all commercial airports. So whether it's LAX or whether it's Ontario, and they are all being impacted. And just like we're seeing and we discussed at the state level, city level and the county level, airports will experience big drops in their revenues and they will have a lot of cuts to be able to address those drops in their revenue. Now, I will tell you where Ontario is slightly different, certainly has experienced a big drop in revenue and bad Ontario more than most and has a good balance of passenger and cargo. Airlines being a western hub for UPS and FedEx, building a brand new, very large facility here in and is becoming for FedEx, having a large number, Amazon flights. We have a lot of cargo. And though passenger flights and traffic had been greatly reduced, the number of lights have gone up significantly. UPS and FedEx has a presence in Ontario, helping Ontario weather the Great Recession when airports once again had significant drops in passenger traffic. And it was the traffic that helped pull us through and I think will help pull through in this time. 

    Maddie Bunting: There's a lot of talk about will the government change? Will society change? Will we go back to quote unquote normal and do we see a new version of what should be normal? Do you have any thoughts on what will change, what might run them if it will be temporary or permanent.?

    Greg Devereaux: I was on an earlier conversation with a lot of health and business leaders and people from the governor's office. And we were talking about what, not only what might change, but is this an opportunity to help create change? I do believe that there will be some changes though. I will tell you I've lived long enough to know that often during crises, it is predicted that there will be permanent change and there turns out to be little or there turns out to be change that gets integrated into what we considered to be everyday life. I mean, pre 9/11, you didn't go through the kind of screening that we have to go through today to get on an airline. And though there are parts of the world that already existed because terrorist activities in some of those areas happened regularly. And so they had already made it an adjustment to address them. But some of the things that people believed would be permanent then didn't turn out to be. I will say that there are some things that are occurring now like the shift to more shopping on the internet, more home delivery. I don't think that those things will go back. I think but I think it was a change that was already happening and I think that this perhaps accelerated it. I do think that perhaps business and government will have learned that remote working really can be equally or more productive and has some side benefits like cleaner air and less congested freeways, less accidents that are beneficial. And so, and once again, whether that is accelerating a change that was already happening, or whether it's a change in and of itself, I will leave to others. I do think that it will be a change in it will affect sectors like commercial real estate, office buildings. If you had a 20 thousand square foot office suite and during this period and found that you really only needed about 5 thousand because you shouldn't be switching off workers and maybe they should command a day or two a week, but the rest of the time they could work from home and be equally productive. You probably don't keep 20 thousands feet, you get down to five, which will perhaps lead us just as we have with brick and mortar stores closing and some of those being converted into housing. Maybe we'll see some of the office space we have today converted into housing or other uses. I think that this will accelerate the use of telemedicine and remote areas help address our public health needs. And certainly in counties like San Bernardino and Riverside, and where we have large geography and people scattered that I think will be a good thing and will help people stay healthier and stay in better touch with their doctors. It will be very interesting to see, on the call, I was told about 15 thousand homeless people had been, and I don't know whether that was area wider statewide but housed in hotels. The question there and everyone has recognized the desirability of doing that from a health and humanitarian standpoint. And what will happen? What will we be able to transfer, transfer those people out of those, hotels as the economy opens up into permanent housing. So I think that there are a number of these changes but I'm old enough to know that only time will tell. 

    Outro: This Podcast is a production of the UC Riverside School of Public Policy. I'm Maddie Bunting. Till next time.