A Farewell Message from General Manager Bill Keene

November 30, 2020

Posted in: News Articles

A Farewell Message from General Manager Bill Keene

Kashia Coastal Preserve, 2016.

Greetings Ag + Open Space Community,

On this my last day as General Manager, I want to take a few moments to reflect on my time at Ag + Open Space. When I started in July 2008 as Assistant General Manager, we had recently passed a new 20-year funding reauthorization, sold revenue bonds of $100 million, and were in the midst of spending those bond proceeds on some amazing projects, including preserving the top of Sonoma Mountain and Jenner Headlands. The future looked bright, we had an amazing staff of 18 and soon to expand, and we were poised to sail to new heights!

At the start, I was hired to oversee the Administrative and Stewardship functions of the organization. Little did I know at the time that I would be at the helm of this grand organization within nine months time. My first few months were spent realizing the obvious… the nation’s financial system was crumbling, and all around us Sonoma County was experiencing job losses, a flurry of housing foreclosures, and although no one knew it yet, the precipitous decline now known as the Great Recession was unfolding before our eyes. I remember sitting in the large conference room with our then General Manager Andrea Mackenzie discussing financial forecasts, and I was the one predicting the worst-case scenario of a 10% drop in revenue. Over the course of the next year, we would experience a more than 25% drop in sales tax revenue. Moreover, after eight months on the job, Andrea took me to a local coffee shop, sat me down, and calmly informed me she was leaving her post, and that I was likely to be named Interim General Manager by the Board, and then she smiled and said, “You’ll do great!” To be honest, I was a proverbial “deer in the headlights” when I heard her news. This is how I started on the journey that would later become the most treasured job of my career.

Fast forwarding to today, I look back on my time at Ag + Open Space and here’s what I see. We have a staff of nearly 30 employees who are the pillar of professionalism in their field and we’ve accomplished an amazing amount of work over these past 12 years. One might ask, what have we done together during my time at Ag + Open Space? A few highlights don’t capture it all, but certainly give you a flavor of what we’ve done together:

  • Protected nearly 45,000 acres of land for agriculture, natural resources and scenic values, and as greenbelts to maintain the character of our communities;
  • Doubled Regional Park’s acreage from a little over 5,000 acres when I started, to over 11,000 today with more to come in the near future;
  • Funded a Matching Grant Program that resulted in urban open space projects in nearly every community in the county including new parks and trail systems, community gardens, ball fields, skateparks, an urban farm, and new river access points along the Russian and Petaluma Rivers to name but a few;
  • Protected some of the oldest redwood trees in our county (some standing nearly 300 feet tall);
  • Worked with the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians of the Stewarts Point Rancheria to restore their ownership of a piece of their ancient homeland, the Kashia Coastal Reserve, where the Tribe can once again connect with their ancestral roots on their own terms; and
  • Positioned the organization for financial success and future reauthorization by refinancing debt that saved nearly $20 million, carefully leveraging funding to the tune of $81 million in grants and discounts on land, and preserving capital of more than $60 million in reserves to implement our soon to be finalized Vital Lands Initiative.

We should all be proud of these accomplishments!  

As I look towards the future, I see great and noble endeavors on the horizon for this venerable organization. There is still much to be done in Sonoma County. Our greenbelts need permanent protection, our farming community needs support to maintain our agricultural heritage, our natural resources require permanent protection to ensure there’s a diverse ecosystem for our children and grandchildren, our ability to provide needed parklands for public access is never greater than today, and based on our mission and track record, we have an incredible opportunity to leverage our work in achieving greater equity in our communities. This organization is poised to achieve all of these heights and more.

As I exit the stage, I would be remiss if I did not take the time to thank those who made us successful during my 12 years as General Manager. I want to particularly thank the residents of Sonoma County, and our Board of Directors, for putting their trust in me to lead this fantastic organization for over a decade. I want to thank our incredible staff who supported me throughout my time at Ag + Open Space, and were it not for them, we would not have achieved all that we did. Their passion, commitment to our mission and our community, and deep knowledge of and care for the land is second to none. To our government and nonprofit partners, I am grateful and humbled by the work you all do and for the support you gave us, and I look forward to seeing what you’re all able to accomplish together in the years to come.

For me, my leaving is about building on the work we’ve done together. My next chapter is about to begin and my intention is to turn back to my roots as a planner and finish my career working at the intersection of land use, water, climate change, social justice and equity, and affordable housing to better our communities. I’m excited for this next chapter to begin and hope I can be as successful along the way as we’ve been these past 12 years. Again, thanks to you all for your support and encouragement over the years. My best to you in your future endeavors. 

With much gratitude,