Sonoma County hires new health director from Texas

A county health administrator from the Austin, Texas, metro area has been chosen to lead the Sonoma County Department of Health Services, wrapping up a lengthy national search that began after the departure of Barbie Robinson in May.

Derrick Neal, 50, is the former executive director of the Williamson County and Cities Health District, an agency that serves a population of more than 600,000 people. Though it serves more people than Sonoma County, the Williamson County health agency has a vastly smaller budget and fewer personnel than the one Neal with be taking on Dec.1, his expected start date.

During an interview Friday, Neal acknowledged he has not headed a health agency as large as the local $275 million, 580-employee health services department. He said his total budget in Williamson County — including federal COVID-19 funds — was about $15 million, with 115 employees.

But he said he’s up for the challenge and brings a collaborative approach to solving some of the vexing public health issues Sonoma County faces, including homelessness, mental health and health care gaps between rural and urban areas.

“I don’t have a magic wand, but I can offer you the ability to bring people together and reach consensus,” Neal said.

Neal was one of three finalists for the position, which Robinson vacated back in May to relocate to Texas and become the public health director of Harris County, which includes the city of Houston and more than 4.7 million residents.

Robinson, the head of health services since 2016, steered the county through major crises that included the 2017 North Bay wildfires and COVID-19 pandemic. She had a reputation as a forceful leader and was arguably Sonoma County’s most powerful bureaucrat. Neal said he recently spoke to Robinson, who reached out to congratulate him.

Neal’s previous work includes three years as the director of the Victory County Public Health Department in Texas, from 2016 to 2019. Before that, from 2013 to 2016, he was director of the Abilene-Taylor County Public Health District. The most recent proposed budgets of both these agencies is under $5 million.

In a county news release, 5th District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins describes Neal as having “experience leading large public health departments,” making him well-suited for the job.

Hopkins endorsed Neal’s selection and clarified that she meant to say Neal worked in a county with a population larger than that of Sonoma County, but which also had a mix of rural and urban communities.

“He’s very familiar with the types of challenges we face,” Hopkins said, adding that she is confident Neal can manage the county’s much larger budget.

Hopkins said that during the lengthy vetting process, which included speaking to his former employers, “no one had a bad thing to say about him. There was really a sense of loss in the agency he was leaving.”

Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer who will report to Neal, said she wasn’t part of the interview process but had heard positive things about him.

“We’re really excited about working with him,” Mase said. “He’s got a lot of energy and we’re hoping he’s got some good ideas.”

Neal said he’s particularly impressed with Sonoma County’s commitment to inclusion and health equity, and he hopes to bolster “upstream” programs that get at the health issues before they become problems.

“It’s much easier to build stronger children than to repair broken men,” he said.

Neal has a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Illinois, Springfield, and is a Ph.D candidate in pubic administration, according to his resume. His starting salary will be $228,876. The Board of Supervisors will consider approval of a three-year contract with Neal on Nov. 2 with a start date of Dec. 1.

“I hope it’s going to be much longer,” he said, adding that he would like to remain in Sonoma County permanently.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or [email protected] On Twitter @pressreno.