Ashton reflects on CAO years with El Dorado County; Plans to retire at Tahoe

Noel Stack / Mountain Democrat
El Dorado County Chief Administrative Officer Don Ashton is getting ready for his retirement. His last day will be March 3.
Mountain Democrat/Noel Stack

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. —  Skis or sunscreen? Retiring El Dorado County Chief Administrative Officer Don Ashton plans to choose both after he turns in his keycard and closes the door on an approximately 30-year career in public service.

Ashton, 52, came to El Dorado County in 2011 from Los Angeles County, calling it “the best move of my life, both personally and professionally.”

He began his career here as the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office’s chief fiscal officer. After a year-and-a-half he moved to the Chief Administrative Office, serving as a principal analyst. About six months later he shifted to the Health and Human Services Agency, first working as the department’s administration and finance assistant director and later as the HHSA director, a title he held for nearly three years.

Then came the call Ashton said he never wanted.

“I never had ambition to be CAO,” he told the Mountain Democrat. “There was so much chaos at that time.”

The CAO position, among other leadership roles at the county, had experienced turmoil in the years prior to Ashton taking the job. The board hired interim CAO Larry Combs in June 2015. He replaced acting CAO Pamela Knorr, who served from November 2014 until June 2015. Knorr took the temporary appointment after the resignation of CAO Terri Daly in November 2014 after four years on the job.

In a unifying effort to promote from within, many El Dorado County department heads and El Dorado County Superior Court judges sent letters of support for Ashton during the spring 2016 CAO recruitment process.

His permanent appointment to the top job came in May 2016 with the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors’ unanimous vote.

Ashton credits his wife Anne for pushing him, gently, into the leadership role with an ultimatum: take the job or stop complaining. With his last day March 3, he will leave the CAO role two months shy of seven years — the longest Ashton said he’s ever stayed in one position.

“I got bored easily,” he said of his frequent job shifts. “I never got bored being CAO.”

Time will tell how the county fared under his leadership, Ashton reflected. “I hope people see the county in better shape now than it was seven years ago.”

And what an eventful seven years it has been. The county endured several department head shake-ups, the COVID-19 pandemic, the Caldor Fire and the Mosquito Fire. Ashton said he’s proud of the partnerships he helped establish during the rough times, handling it all with what he called “steady, stable leadership.”

He noted many positive achievements during his tenure, including financing and construction of the new sheriff’s headquarters, park improvements (the Old Depot Bike Park on Missouri Flat will open soon) and facilities acquisitions on the West Slope and in South Lake Tahoe that will help county departments better operate and serve the public.

“I wish we had the Costco,” he said with a sigh. The El Dorado Hills project continues to slowly move through the development process.

His primary regret, Ashton shared, “I was unable to facilitate and be a part of restructuring the fire (protection) system in El Dorado County so that it would be fiscally sustainable while continuing to provide a high level of service to our residents.”

The outgoing CAO also noted he developed some thick skin. “Being in the role, I’ve lost who I thought were friends because the job had to come first,” he confessed. “But far more positive relationships were built.”

And strong relationships are what Ashton said the next CAO must maintain and grow to keep El Dorado County moving in the right direction.

“I don’t see this job as being the boss,” he explained. “Building positive relationships and collaborating are the two most important things in this job. That’s how you get things done in El Dorado County.”

The Board of Supervisors has initiated another recruitment effort to fill Ashton’s shoes after two failed attempts last year. An interim CAO was named at the Feb. 21 board meeting — Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Tiffany Schmid.

Ashton acknowledged the board faces challenges with recruitment and said it would be in the county’s best interest to start cultivating its leaders from within. “We have to do better growing our own people,” he insisted.

Whoever next moves into the CAO’s Fair Lane office will find a message from Ashton. The note’s content remains secret.

Though he came from Southern California, Ashton said he no longer feels like an outsider thanks to the community’s support and the friendships he has made. He loves El Dorado County so much he moved his parents here. “It’s a place I truly call home.”

Sticking close to that home, Ashton and his wife will visit their family and friends on the West Slope often and plan to move to Incline Village after his retirement. When the snow gets too deep for snowshoeing, the couple will head to their other retirement escape in Costa Rica.

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