David Bretl said he has tried to effect change during his years as the top administrator in Walworth County government.
Now, change is coming for him.
Bretl, 55, has announced his intent to retire in early 2020.
He said he plans to help his wife with her business and spend more time with his three kids in three states.
He answered these questions in an interview with The Gazette:
Q: What were the biggest challenges during your tenure?
A: “I brought a lot of change, and I guess at the end of the day, that would be the biggest challenge, trying to effect change and the upset and disruption that caused,” he said.
For example, during his tenure the county redesigned its health and human services program.
“That was a wholesale change of how we did business,” he said.
“There was, I think it’s fair to say, a massive resistance to that culminating in a three-hour public comment period where I was the subject of the negative press there.”
The county also downsized its nursing home in 2004 and redesigned how the county delivers special education services in 2005.
Q: Looking back at your years in Walworth County, what are you most proud of?
A: “Some folks approach this job as, ‘I’m going to do it in spite of the (county) board,’ but I think we were able to do it together. Putting the county in a stronger position than it was when I came here, and that’s not attributable to any one person alone—certainly not me—but the fact that I think it was a group effort is probably what I’m most proud of,” he said.
“We’re stronger financially; we paid off all our debt. Stronger in terms of the depth of our department heads, the quality of our department heads. I think we’ve got some very strong performers here. Our infrastructure ... is virtually replaced since I came here.
“Really, no person can do that alone. It was our managers, our employees, our board,” he said.
Q: What do you think is your management style?
A: “Half the challenge of the job is to bring that group along. They’re going to be here after you are, and they’re the elected officials. So just to say, ‘I know best, I’m going to do it,’ I think is not a strategy for success.
“I think (the term) servant leadership is overused. I hope I practice it. I certainly preach that. I’m here to help people deliver services, maybe, if that’s a style,” he said.
Q: What did you like best about the job?
A: “The most fun part was really in educating. It’s kind of a teaching position in a way.
“You take people—I’m talking about the county board—who by and large don’t have experience in government, necessarily, or the subject areas we’re dealing with and to be able to educate them to the point where they have the tools to make decisions, even if those decisions don’t always align with me. That was, I think, the most exciting part of the job, when the light bulb would go on and they would understand how things run and what the ramifications are.”
Q: What did you dread? What did you least like doing?
A: “Through the budgeting process, having people lose their jobs. That was the least favorite by far. Some years, man, we had a list of layoffs, and those letters go out around Thanksgiving time, and their work is done before New Year’s. That’s tough.”
Q: What’s left undone that you wish you’d been able to pull off?
A: “The No. 1 issue now is our nursing home. We need to make a decision about what the nature of that operation is going to be, given completely inadequate reimbursements from the federal government and given our aging workforce and relatively slow population growth in our county. I presented a couple different options for our board to address, but that’s something that needs to be addressed in a timely way.”
Q: What’s your advice for your successor?
A: “To look to the future. One of the dangers of being at a place for 19 years is that I tend to look back at accomplishments, draw on the past ... but one of the benefits of having somebody come in new is to look at it with a fresh set of eyes and to appreciate things that were done in the past but not to live in that.
“Continue looking forward and building on and making better what we’ve done.”