Placer County No. 2 post vacant after sudden departure of Rich Colwell

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Rich Colwell has abruptly left the No. 2 administrative position with Placer County. The county’s chief assistant executive officer for the past three years and a 20-year county employee, Colwell tendered his written resignation Monday. Colwell was no longer on the job Tuesday, leaving some speculating he was forced to retire. County CEO Tom Miller said he received verbal notice from Colwell last week that he was going to retire and received official notice of his retirement in Monday’s resignation letter. Colwell had been talking about retiring for a couple of weeks, Miller said. Colwell, whose annual salary rose this summer to $243,131, stands to receive a six-figure annual retirement income based on his years of service and the level of remuneration at the time of his departure. A lifelong Penryn resident, Colwell oversaw county operations in Miller’s absence and provided policy direction and operational oversight of law enforcement and health services. He was also director of the Redevelopment Agency. Because of time still not taken for vacations, Colwell – who is in his mid-50s – won’t officially retire until early spring. Colwell couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday. Colwell’s sudden departure carried none of the fanfare or ceremony that often accompanies the retirement of a long-time government official. Colwell was hired by the county in 1989 as director of management information services. The Del Oro High School graduate was promoted to director of the Department of Administrative Services before taking on the chief assistant post. His resignation after two decades opens questions that Miller said he would be unable to confirm or deny because they fall under the realm of “personnel matters.” Miller did say that Colwell left the county in good standing and had not been placed on administrative leave. Colwell’s post will not be filled because of a hiring freeze. Colwell’s efforts included updating computer systems at the county and using the redevelopment agency to fund improvements along the Highway 49 corridor. Miller had praise for Colwell’s efforts for the county on several fronts. “He’s done a lot of good things and delivered a lot of important projects,” Miller said. “It’s going to be difficult (without Colwell).” As a high-profile public official, Colwell also faced controversy trying to bring affordable housing to the Bowman area against opposition from nearby residents. Dale Smith’s Alpha Omega Associates firm helped Residents Against Inappropriate Development fight the county on the Silver Bend project. The group reached a settlement in court that opened the disputed property for another type of development but the county – now owner of the property – is again attempting to locate low-income apartments on the site. Smith said that based on his experience, it wouldn’t be surprising if Colwell had been forced out. “I’ve never had much respect for Richard Colwell,” Smith said Tuesday. During the RAID-county dispute, Smith said he obtained a Colwell e-mail that was extremely derogatory to several members of the community. Requesting more e-mails through the Public Records Act, Smith said he discovered hundreds of similar examples. “Some of the things he wrote showed what a shocking disregard he had for a number of people,” Smith said. More recently, Colwell’s high salary and his role in a $1,668 dinner in Washington, D.C. for former U.S. Rep. John Doolittle at taxpayer expense also opened him this summer to public criticism. Miller said he’ll be taking over the economic development oversight Colwell had been responsible for, as well as policy issues to do with law enforcement and health. Financial oversight on law enforcement and health areas will now be handled by Assistant CEO Holly Heinzen. Colwell won’t be severing all ties with local government. He is in the third year of his sixth term as a Placer County Board of Education member. County Schools Superintendent Gayle Garbolino Mojica said Tuesday that he is expected to assume the board chairman’s post for a fourth time in 2010. He represents District 2, which takes in Penryn, Loomis and Granite Bay. Miller also said Colwell should stay busy in retirement with Colwell’s Thundering Herd Ranch in Penryn, which produces mandarin-infused olive oil as well as other citrus-based products. ---------------------------------- Fast facts: Richard Colwell Held chief assistant executive officer post since February 2006 County employee since 1989 Last day at work Monday, the same day CEO Tom Miller accepted resignation letter Has served nearly a quarter century as Placer County Office of Education board member Lifelong Penryn resident