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The Spectrum

 

August 29, 2005

 

By Valerie Harris, Special to the Spectrum

 

 

Serving the People First and Foremost: The Slocum Way

 

 

When first meeting Warren Slocum, his casual air and wonder of technology makes you forget that he holds the position of California’s first combined County Assessor, Clerk, Recorder, and Registrar of Voters. Slocum holds four public offices, yet manages the departments so well that San Mateo County sets the blueprint for pioneering innovation in voting and voter technology.

 

As a child, Warren Slocum moved to California from the Midwest. The son of a single-parent father, Slocum was raised in an eccentric and brilliant family. His father, Ralph Slocum, taught Warren the entrepreneurial spirit by starting a myriad of businesses such as selling pet supplies, insurance, leather goods, groceries, real estate, and even flowerpots. His uncle, John Slocum was a reclusive inventor, who invented the first synthetic opal. Slocum’s aunt, Priscilla, was the first woman real estate broker in San Diego.

 

After a tour of duty with the Army in Vietnam, Slocum took advantage of the GI Bill and attended San Diego State, where he graduated with honors with a degree in American History. Slocum had always been interested in the westward movement of people in the United States; the growth of cities; and historic preservation of architecture, so a career in politics was a natural progression.

 

After graduating, Slocum took a six-month internship in San Diego. This job focused on starting a paramedic program in the early 1970’s in the San Diego area, and it was just the job to tap Slocum’s innovative and entrepreneurial spirit. That was his first encounter with a government job. Slocum assumed at the time that his ties with government work would end with that internship; after all, he had come from a world of start-up businesses and the private sector should be the next step.

 

The next job, though, was with the Santa Barbara Health Department, delivering health care services to disadvantaged children. Once again Slocum found himself in a government start-up environment helping kids who couldn’t see or hear, or kids who had learning disabilities. That program took a year to develop, and once again, Slocum felt the urge to move on.

 

Slocum had always had an interest in politics. In the early 1970’s, he had volunteered for Colleen O’Conner, who sought a congressional seat. Even though Slocum had been a campaign volunteer, his interest in politics led him to apply and secure a job as an assistant manager in elections in 1976. His first assignment was to work as a polling place worker in the Isla Vista neighborhood of Santa Barbara, with its denizens of hippies sleeping in doorways, residual anti-war protesters, and anti-Republican, post-Nixon-resignation, left-wing radicals. From that experience he gained a special respect for the people who work in the polls because everything that could have gone wrong that day went wrong, and Slocum had to deal with some very challenging issues.

 

The next move was up to Silicon Valley, the land of start-ups. Slocum ended up in Berkeley. While attending an elections conference Slocum met Marvin Church, the San Mateo County Clerk-Recorder. Slocum recalls: “I remember discussing zero-based budgeting and he didn’t believe in it and I did, but we hit it off even though we disagreed. We had lunch later and he told me that he had a job opening. I said I was leaving the government sector, and going into the private sector.” However, the sales pitch was enticing, and Slocum agreed to take on the job of Assistant County Recorder for at least three years.

 

During his stint as Assistant County Recorder, the Assistant County Clerk retired, so Slocum took over that position. He was now working for the elections, for the recorder, and also ran the court systems.

 

When his boss retired, Slocum was encouraged to run for that position. “Marvin Church trusted me; he mentored me. He was a very demanding boss, and he expected a great deal from people. He always set goals that were beyond an easy reach, and he always managed up,” Slocum detailed. “Because of him, I became a better person and a better manager. I decided to run, but I was relatively unknown, and Church helped in so many ways. I won the election.”

 

One of the most notable examples set by Church was the case when he received a call in the middle of a meeting with a constituent. This woman called Church in desperation. It seems she had reserved a campground, and the county had lost the reservation. The woman was saddled with 16 kids ready to camp for the weekend, and there was no place to go. Church assigned the task to Slocum who resolved the issue in ten minutes through a few phone calls. Slocum recalls: “It wasn’t my job, but I got her a reservation and she was relieved. I learned a valuable lesson that day. It didn’t matter to him [Church] that it wasn’t his area; he was an elected official. He respected the relationship between being an elected official and the citizens.”

 

Slocum won the 1986 election with 73% of the vote.

 

Although he won in June, Slocum didn’t take the reins of office until 12:01 am, January 1, 1987. Rose Marie, the executive secretary was there to welcome him in with a terse: “It’s yours now – what do you want to do?”

 

Slocum held that position from 1987 to 1993, when a huge judicial reform hit the California court system. Courts were consolidated, and municipal and superior courts were merged. Assessor Roland Giannini left and the Assessor’s and Recorder’s offices were merged. A ballot measure merged the elected offices of County Assessor and County Clerk-Recorder.

 

In 1993 the business climate changed. The airlines had been at odds with the Assessor’s Office over taxable items. The bioscience industry was taking off, and in addition to learning the complexities of the property assessment process, there were many changes in property tax laws. Software in airplanes, the exploding dot-com and computer industry, and mergers and acquisitions constantly changed the tax landscape and always challenged Slocum’s innovativeness. Yet he always rose to the occasion.

 

Mergers and acquisitions also hit the government sector. To allow costs to go down, and improve efficiencies, mergers hit county offices. As offices were merged, Slocum acquired more and more jobs, and finally became California’s first combined County Assessor, Clerk, Recorder, and Registrar of Voters.

 

Slocum kept up his innovative spirit, refining the election processes with preparedness and rehearsals, giving San Mateo County the distinct title of the first county to report its election results to the Secretary of State. The Recorder’s office is streamlining the document archives using the latest in SMART document technology to increase the efficiency of the filing and recording of tax liens and private land records. Since he was always a fan of high technology, Slocum developed the first county website. Slocum was short of poll workers last year, so he enticed them with $25 bonuses. In fact, Slocum is such a trendsetter, that county governments nationwide keep an eye on San Mateo County, and constantly seek his advice on technical improvements and reforms.

 

Just recently, Slocum allocated some money to do a voter focus group. “You know what we found out? The voters have some doubt about their ballot being counted when they vote by mail,” Slocum recounts. To insure the voter that his or her vote was counted, Slocum has instituted a process in which when the mail-in ballots are received, the envelope’s bar code will be scanned and logged (without compromising the vote). The voter can log into the county’s website and by simply entering the address and birth date, the voter can track the receipt of the mail-in ballot. This will allow the voters of San Mateo County to be the first in the nation to use this technology in the upcoming election.

 

Slocum also empowers people in his employment. After she graduated from a Redwood City leadership program, he hired Lupe Sanchez. She was a young single mother of two children. Slocum believes in teaching people that they can change, and empowers them to do so. Ms. Sanchez is now a valued member of the San Mateo County election team and recently assisted candidates with their paperwork for the November election.

 

Slocum expects a lot from his workforce as well. But although he considers himself a demanding boss, he always rewards the employees with barbeques and other work functions. Slocum epitomizes stellar leadership skills: his team most often finishes first whether it’s in innovation or filing election results. Slocum’s leadership is unmatched in the State and possible the Nation.

 

This visionary continues to focus time and importance on family and community. He is past president of the Mid-Peninsula Boys and Girls Club and the Redwood Shores Rotary. He lives in Redwood City with his wife Maria and sons Jonathan and Justin, and recently found time to swim the “Escape from Alcatraz” race, in which he finished 286 out of around 1,000 swimmers; plus he recently had a hole in one at Poplar Creek Golf course.

 

But the top job for Slocum is making the time for every constituent who requests it, affirming his open door policy. Serving the people is first and foremost. Slocum says: “It’s just a priority.”