Public service

Outgoing Santa Fe County executive looks back on 25 years of public service | Local News

Katherine Miller inherited a series of scandals and troubles when she became Santa Fe County Executive in 2010.

Prior to taking the helm, the county’s director of public works had been placed on administrative leave and was being investigated for accepting bribes.

The sheriff resigned shortly after admitting to stealing county-owned property and selling it on eBay for personal gain.

A multi-million dollar courthouse project had stalled and was just a hole in the ground.

And the county was in the spotlight for paying $7 million for 470 acres near La Cienega but having no plans for the property.

“One of the things I was asked [when interviewing for the job] was, ‘Could you help point us in a new direction, a different direction?’ Miller recalled in an extensive interview on Wednesday, a day after announcing she was retiring after a 25-year career in public service.

The county commission said Tuesday it had selected county attorney Greg Shaffer to replace her. He is expected to take office in May and Miller will facilitate the transition.

Miller said she wanted to take on the challenge “because I knew it wasn’t the county, having worked here before.”

Previously, she worked as a county purchasing officer and chief financial officer.

“Of course, there are always things that maybe we could do better, and maybe there are things that we don’t want or plan for,” she said, “but I also knew that how the county was represented publicly was not central to what this organization is or how it performs for voters.

While the county still stumbles from time to time, Miller, 58, has turned its reputation into that of a well-run organization over the past 11½ years.

“I think what she has brought to this position, especially over the years, is a level of professionalism that [didn’t exist] before her,” said Roman “Tiger” Abeyta, a former Santa Fe city councilman who served as county executive before Miller.

“In the 20 years I was in the county, we had eight managers with myself included, so on average we had one county manager every two, two and a half years,” Abeyta said. “I was county manager for four years, but I think she brought stability to the post and also kind of a change in the reputation of the post.”

Abeyta said the county manager’s job was once considered a “political position.”

“She took that political element out of it and established it as a more professional position, which it should have been from the start,” he said.

Steve Kopelman, executive director of New Mexico Counties, said Miller is “extremely conscientious” and one of the hardest working people he has ever met.

“She’s sharp as an arrow and she knows how to get things done,” said Kopelman, who was a county attorney when Miller first went to work for the county as a procurement officer.

“I think she’s one of the best county managers in the state, without a doubt,” he added. “She has immense respect among her peers.”

Miller did not embark on a career in public service.

The daughter of an Air Force officer who moved about every two or three years as a child, Miller went to Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, on an art scholarship with the intend to become a commercial artist.

“My mom said I probably came out of the womb drawing,” she said.

But in college, Miller started looking at what commercial artists were earning at the time.

“Well, I thought maybe I should take care of the business side of things,” she laughed, “so I changed my major to a Bachelor of Science in Business, Marketing and management.”

At 33 and in the midst of a divorce, she came to New Mexico, where her late mother lived.

“I had decided that I was just going to come to Santa Fe for a few months and figure out what I was going to do from there,” she said.

One day, while leafing through the newspaper, she saw a job posting for the county’s purchasing manager. After graduating from college and getting married, Miller worked as a purchasing manager, as well as the director of an energy conservation company, and ran an accounting office.

Miller applied and got the job.

“I’ve loved working in the county since I first started here in 1997,” she said.

About a year and a half later, Miller was promoted to chief financial officer.

“It was tough because I was the fifth CFO in five years,” she said. “It was a bit intimidating because I didn’t want to be let go. It was my first appointed position. It was not classified. It was all you can eat, and I had just bought a house six weeks before.

After former Governor Bill Richardson was elected, Miller joined his administration as Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy and Projects in the spring of 2003.

“Talk about fast pace and learning on my feet. Every day was a learning experience,” she said.

The following year, Miller became executive director of the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority, where she established the Housing Trust Fund and the Affordable Housing Tax Credit. In 2006, Richardson appointed Miller Secretary to the Cabinet of the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration.

As Richardson’s administration drew to a close, Miller began looking for other work and was being considered for a position as the City of San Diego’s Director of Financial Services.

Around the same time, a Santa Fe County commissioner called Miller and asked if she was interested in returning to the county as superintendent, which she did in 2010.

“I really…enjoyed the challenge of branching out into more general management, not just financial management,” she said. “While it was Santa Fe County — and that was great because I knew the county — it was also a much broader range of issues and a much broader level of management…and looking at the whole of the county and how to move the whole county forward.”

Miller cites several accomplishments under his tenure, including developing a comprehensive land use code and growth management plan, something the county has been trying to do for decades.

“Does it still need improvements? Yes. Could we streamline the process? Yes, and we are working on it,” she said.

Miller said the county is in excellent financial shape.

“We went from an AA bond rating to now AAA,” she said. “We were just reaffirmed by Standard and Poor’s last week, and we are well positioned to respond to any economic situations that come our way.”

Richardson called Miller “an incomparable civil servant.”

“She has long been a compassionate and fiscally responsible executive,” Richardson wrote in an email. “However, I believe his retirement will be short-lived. She is a workaholic with a strong public interest. She’s coming back!”

Miller said she has no plans to return to work.

“In 2019, I was diagnosed with cancer. Although I am now cured of cancer, I have not physically recovered from the stress it caused me and my body,” she said. declared.

As she was coming out of her treatments, the coronavirus pandemic began, she said.

“I lost my 15-year-old dog almost immediately, then I lost my mother, and I never took time off under any of those circumstances,” she said. “I took the bare minimum to bury my mother and the bare minimum to get through my treatments.”

After the pandemic hit, Miller said she felt morally obligated to “stay and try to get us out” of the pandemic.

“But now I would like to get away from the stress and take time with my husband and my family and just have some time for myself to heal because it will suck anyone’s life,” a- she said laughing.

Miller said she doesn’t think she could be happier with how her career has turned out.

“I loved the opportunities that were given to me,” she said. “I love New Mexico. I love Santa Fe, and I felt honored and privileged to be able to serve in roles where I hope I have made a difference.

Miller publicly announced his retirement at Tuesday’s County Commission meeting.

Deciding to retire was probably harder for her than for most people, she said, adding, “I feel very blessed and grateful that it was such a difficult decision for me. I’ve been the manager for over 11.6 years or 4,240 days to be exact today. But who counts?

Miller described her time as county manager as “one of the most rewarding and also challenging positions” of her 40-year career.

Although the commissioners knew about his announcement in advance, it left many of them with tears in their eyes.

“It makes me very sad to know that you are leaving,” Commissioner Anna Hansen said. “There are clearly no words for all of us to express our gratitude for. … I know a lot of people will be very surprised and I guess shocked that you are leaving. But at the same time, we are lucky to have you for the time we did, so thank you.

Commissioner Hank Hughes, executive director and co-founder of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, jokingly asked if the commission could vote to reject Miller’s retirement.

“I won’t go on as long as Commissioner Hansen because men aren’t supposed to cry,” said Hughes, who has known Miller for 20 years.