County nears end of health chief search

After more than a year without a permanent leader for Los Angeles County's health department, long-time public health executive Bob Sillen is now favored to get the job by the county's top executive, according to sources familiar with the hiring process.

William T Fujioka, the county's chief executive, said Friday that a finalist is scheduled to meet with county supervisors individually Monday and to conduct a group interview Tuesday. Fujioka declined to name the candidate, but sources familiar with the process said it is Sillen.

Sillen could not be reached for comment.

Whoever gets the job will face serious challenges. The last permanent leader for the Department of Health Services, Bruce A. Chernof, resigned abruptly in April of last year. His predecessor, Thomas Garthwaite, complained about political interference making his job harder.

The health department has 22,000 employees and a $3.4-billion-a-year budget and serves 700,000 people a year.

Sillen most recently served as the health czar for the state's prison system. A federal judge appointed him to the job in 2006 after ruling that medical conditions violated prisoners' constitutional rights and were so broken that an inmate was dying every week because of poor care.

Sillen, 66, took a confrontational approach to the prisons job and frequently clashed with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislators who balked at giving him all of the hundreds of millions of dollars he said he needed to elevate care. At one point, he threatened to "back up the Brinks truck" to the state's treasury to get the money he needed.

Meanwhile, his opponents criticized him for his high salary -- $52,000 a month -- and the six-figure salaries he gave to much of his staff.

Last year, the judge fired him, saying he was making too little progress.

Still, Sillen has supporters.

"We had the right guy for the right time for shaking up the system," said John Hagar, Sillen's former chief of staff during his time with California's prison system. "If Bob hadn't offended people, he would not have been doing his job. There has been a lower key approach since he left and it has failed."

Prior to his role with the prison system, Sillen worked for 26 years at the Santa Clara County health department, eventually rising to the top position overseeing 6,200 employees and a $1.4-billion annual budget. He was widely praised in the job for mastering public healthcare finance in order to maximize care to the county's indigent population.

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