After 34 years working for Santa Barbara County, with half of those spent as the Agricultural Commissioner, Bill Gillette has retired.

His last day was Friday and, according to those in the local agriculture industry, he will be sorely missed.

“He is one of the finest men, and the finest person I know,” said Victor Tognazzini, former president and board member of the Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau.

“When I have a question, a problem, an insight ... he’s the go-to person, he’s the one I call. It’s a sad thing for me to know he won’t be there anymore,” Tognazzini added.

“He’s been good for agriculture. It’s going to be difficult to replace him,” added Kevin Merrill, a member of the Central Coast Wine Growers Association and president of the Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau.

The Agricultural Commissioner is the local enforcement officer for the state Department of Pesticide Regulation and the Department of Food and Agriculture.

The person who holds the position is mandated to promote and protect the agricultural industry, and the environment of the county, through the enforcement of local, state and federal laws and regulations.

“I’m just a person who did a job, hopefully did it well, but I’m a regulator, so not everybody likes you,” Gillette said humbly. “But I think I did it in a way that people knew we had everyone’s best interest in mind.”

Gillette took his position seriously and had a large hand in mediating between the agricultural industry and the environmental community, the county bureaucracy, and farmers and neighbors, Tognazzini said.

“He made it possible for this new working relationship that is now apparent between agriculture and the environmentalists,” Tognazzini added.

Gillette was instrumental in establishing an Agricultural Advisory Committee, which makes recommendations to the deciding agencies on applicable projects, and the Agricultural Preserve Program, which focuses on the long-term conservation of agricultural land.

“He’s been a positive influence on any ordinances that have been drafted or have been attempted,” Tognazzini said.

Richard Quandt, the president and general counsel of the Grower-Shipper Vegetable Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, said Gillette has been “a bridge between production agriculture and the county.”

“He informed the county of agriculture and informed agriculture of the county,” Quandt said.

Teri Bontrager, the executive director of the county Farm Bureau, called Gillette a “fair and thoughtful commissioner.”

“He was tasked to do a very difficult but important job in a community that at times presented conflicts between the traditional rural part and the increasing urbanization of the county,” Bontrager said.

Although it was at times a daunting task, she said Gillette “did it very thoughtfully and to the best of his ability.”

The Farm Bureau honored Gillette with its Agricultural Person of the Year award in 2000.

It was not uncommon for people living near producing agricultural land to complain to their county supervisor and the commissioner about the dirt or the smell, Quandt said.

And it wasn’t unusual for Gillette to send out a member of his staff to explain to the neighbors what the impacts were and why they were being produced, he said.

“He would try to facilitate a good neighbor policy and reduce those conflicts and open dialogue between the grower and the neighborhood,” Quandt said.

Gillette was also able to establish pest eradication programs without too much controversy in residential areas, during outbreaks of pests such as the light brown apple moth and the glassy-winged sharpshooter.

“The county was lucky to have him as our agricultural commissioner,” Bontrager summarized.

The 60-year-old Gillette took advantage of the county’s offer of early retirement and said he plans to play golf and get involved as a volunteer with nonprofit agencies that spark his interest.

So far, no one has been tapped to take his place, but the county is involved in a cross-country recruiting effort, Gillette said.

No interim administrator has been announced to hold down the fort until a new Agricultural Commissioner is hired.

December 14, 2009

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