Career takes another turn as Tom Huening retires | February 22, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - February 22, 2012

Career takes another turn as Tom Huening retires

by Dave Boyce

San Mateo County Controller and San Mateo resident Tom Huening is retiring effective March 31 after serving in the post since 1999, putting another notch on the belt of his varied career.

He flew jet fighters for the U.S. Navy over Vietnam, then passenger jets for TWA for 17 years. He managed a commercial real estate firm and has passed California's certified public accountancy (CPA) test. He earned post-graduate degrees in law and business. And he has served in three elected county offices: five years (1981-86) on the board of the community college district, 11 years (1987-98) as county supervisor, and about 11 years (1999-2012) as controller.

"I consider (retirement) a career change," Mr. Huening, 70, said in an interview about his current plans. "You might say I can't hold a job, or that I have a short attention span."

Because the county needs a controller — the office, with a staff of 41, monitors efficiency in county government — the Board of Supervisors is likely to appoint rather than have an election for Mr. Huening's successor, he said.

The controller's office had 53 employees when Mr. Huening took over, he said. His first order of business: commission an operational audit from the firm Deloitte & Touche. As distinct from a financial audit, an operational audit looks at how an agency might work smarter and spend less, he said.

As the staff count has evolved downward over time, the workload has gone in the opposite direction. The costs of governing the county have doubled or trebled, he said. The office has six or seven CPAs on staff, he added.

County grand juries have a mission similar to the controller's office in that they often subject government agencies to critical analysis, and the controller's office will assist when asked. "We're in the same kind of business," Mr. Huening said. "We have a technical staff that can help them and frequently we do."

While he declined an invitation to talk about the politics of running for countywide office, Mr. Huening did respond, after a pause of 10 seconds, to the question of what he might change in county government if he had the opportunity.

Over time, an inward focus develops in a bureaucracy, he said. "As it grows and continues to grow, it becomes self-propagating and self-perpetuating. I think it's intrinsic in a large organization," he said. What he would do is "to help citizens (become aware of) that process and pay attention to politics because it affects their lives, if not in the short term then certainly in the long term."

"People need to pay attention to politics. It's more important than a lot of folks realize."

And now ...

Over the last three or four years, Mr. Huening said he wrote "Spiritual Choices: Putting the HERE in Hereafter." The book (available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites) considers the five major religions and how "they have grown, in most cases, away from the original concept of the religion," he said.

An obvious question, given that theme and his upbringing as a Roman Catholic: What would Jesus do?

"He wouldn't do what organized religions do today," Mr. Huening said. "He wouldn't build the Crystal Cathedral (an Anaheim-based Protestant church with televised services). He wouldn't build any cathedral. His approach would be so different from today and what we see in Christianity."

"If he were around today, he would be feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and doing exactly what he would have been doing when he was on this Earth."

Mr. Huening's views on religion evolved through his experiences in the Navy and traveling the world. "I realized that the world was bigger than the concept of Catholic and non-Catholic," he said. "That is not nearly enough categories. At that point, I became a recovering Catholic."

Mr. Huening said he is retiring to work on his new book, "Spiritual but not Religious," a sequel. "I want to focus full time on writing," he said. "I don't have time to do that part time."


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