Sutter Supervisor-elect Sullenger draws on business acumen
If the economy is a lemon, Sutter County Supervisor-elect Ron Sullenger said he is giving himself four years to work on making it into "suitable lemonade."
Sullenger, who will be sworn in early next year to represent northern Yuba City and Live Oak on the Board of Supervisors, said his recipe for suitable lemonade is business experience, a willingness to be tough and common sense.
"One of the things I've learned is you can't always throw money at a problem and expect it to be solved," said Sullenger, 72. "You need to surround yourself with the best minds and best advice available."
A nearly lifelong resident of Sutter County — his local family roots go back to the late 19th century — Sullenger started, grew and sold two successful small businesses and raised a family before county government began to intrigue him in recent years.
Though there was not one particular action that compelled him to run for office, Sullenger said he got a cumulative sense of leaders working more in defense of the way things are than to make the county's situation better.
But as revenues have shrunken in recent years, he said, the mindset has to change.
"There are many good things we need from bureaucracy," he said, describing public safety as one of them. "But we need to establish spending priorities and find things we can downsize or streamline."
As one example, he cited the need for the county to get out of managing the cash-strapped airport. The county should work together more with the city of Yuba City, and work more closely with the city of Live Oak to make it a business destination, he said.
Though he said he is sure running the county is not exactly like running a business, supervisors should not be afraid to think creatively, examine critically and recognize not every decision will be popular with everyone.
With an eye toward the latter, Sullenger said, supervisors also should not see their role as a career, adding he plans to serve no more than two terms and thinks there should be an imposed limit.
"It's like an athlete who begins reading press clippings," he said. "You're somebody now, and you don't want to give that power up."
Longtime friend and occasional business partner Byron Shinkle of Yuba City said Sullenger's traits, in a way, make him ill suited for politics.
"He's the kind of guy that if he tells you he's going to do something, he does it. And if he tells you he's not going to do something, he won't," Shinkle said. "We're about to find out what the definition of a public servant really is."
As Sullenger described how he will approach his role, he veered between being gently critical of how the county works, to frustrated, and, occasionally, even angry.
His plan to use his role as a bully pulpit, he said, is from the playbook of a person he considers his political mentor, former Supervisor Joe Benatar, who had a similar approach.
"I see no reason why you shouldn't bring up issues that somehow get under the table and people don't want to talk about," Benatar said.
Constituents should expect Sullenger not to take what he is told for granted, said Benatar, who served on the board for 16 years.
"He'll be quite an asset, and not a yes-man," Benatar said, adding he expects Sullenger will cast a particularly keen eye on the budget, from recommendations by the county administrator to what's proposed for various departments.
But Sullenger said he does not want other supervisors or county officials to get the wrong idea. He wants to work with people, and both admit and learn what he does not know. And county residents, he said, should know he is not coming in with any agenda other than making county government effective.
"I want to let folks know there are still some of us who are not beholden to anyone," he said.
CONTACT Ben van der Meer at email@example.com or 749-4786. Find him on Facebook at /ADbvandermeer or on Twitter at @ADbvandermeer.