Q&A with Ronald Arias, MPA ’74
MPA alumnus Ronald Arias retired this past December as the director of the Long Beach Department of Health and Human Services — a post he’s held for the past 12 years. His career as a public servant spans 22 years with the City of Long Beach.
For those who may not know much about the Long Beach Department of Health and Human Services, can you please elaborate on the scope of its work and describe its goals?
The City of Long Beach Department of Health & Human Services is unique in that it is one of three city-operated health departments in the state; the other two are Pasadena and Berkeley. All other communities are served by county health departments. The mission of the department is “To improve the quality of life of the residents of Long Beach by addressing public health and human service needs and by promoting a healthy environment in which to live, work and play.” The primary goals of public health are to prevent epidemics and the spread of communicable disease and to promote and encourage healthy behaviors. The LB Health Department is 106 years old and has an operating budget of $119 million and employs over 350 staff. As a city health department, we are able to focus on Long Beach residents and to customize our programs to meet their unique needs. The Health Department works very closely with many community-based organizations and businesses to assure and to improve the health of the entire community.
How would you describe your role and responsibilities as director?
As director, I was responsible for an annual budget of $119 million and oversaw six departmental bureaus which include: Community Health, Environmental Health, Preventive Health, Administrative Services and the Housing Authority. As department head, I reported to the city manager and worked very closely with the City Council and the Board of Health to develop new programs to address community problems. It’s important to note that of our total budget less than one percent came from the city’s general fund. One of my biggest responsibilities as director was assuring that our funding from federal, state, county and private foundations continued uninterrupted. I worked very closely with my bureau managers to make sure that our funding was sufficient to run and operate our programs. With over 88 grants in the department, this was a never-ending challenge.
What do you consider your – and the department’s – biggest accomplishments?
As director I spearheaded the development of the Miller Family Health Education Center. With mostly private funding, we were able to create a new health education center with several existing and new programs directed at improving the community’s health. One of the features of Miller FHEC was the multicultural pavilion — a state-of-the-art conference and training center with integrated language interpretation equipment similar to a mini-United Nations meeting room. This allowed us to communicate more effectively with our limited-English speaking populations. In the policy arena the most significant accomplishment was our no smoking ordinance. First adopted by City Council in the early 90s, the policy has been amended several times since then, restricting smoking on beaches parks, and, most recently, at bus stops.
What have been the most rewarding aspects of your work directing the health department? What were the most challenging?
The rewards have been many, but they boil down to making a positive difference in the city of Long Beach and improving the health of the community. As a city health department, we focus entirely on the city of Long Beach and this has allowed us throughout our history to impact the community in a positive way. In the early years, it was about food and water safety. In the 1920s, the Health Department administered over 50,000 smallpox vaccinations. In the 1940s, we worked to combat TB; in the 1950s, it was polio vaccinations. In the 1980s, we launched a public health war against HIV/AIDS, and in the 1990s, we stopped smoking in public places. In 2000, we started to focus on childhood obesity and we still have a long way to go. All of these successes were the result of dedicated staff and a commitment to serve the city of Long Beach. The major challenges have primarily been funding and, of course, keeping public health upper-most in the minds of our residents. A major accomplishment for me as director has been improving the connection of the Health Department with the community and city leaders.
What initially piqued your interest in public service?
One of my first jobs in the early 70s was as a housing coordinator at the East Long Beach Neighborhood Center. ELBNC was an anti-poverty center that was funded through the Office of Economic Opportunity, which was a part of President Johnson’s war on poverty. It was my work at the ELBNC that galvanized my interest in public service and working with low income ethnic communities.
How did your education at the USC Price School prepare you in your professional pursuits? What lessons were you able to apply?
My MPA at USC was key to my professional success. Upon entering USC in the early 70s, I was a little rough around the edges. I was one of three NASSPA Fellows, which provided me the opportunity to attend classes and get involved in the school’s committee structure without having to work, as I was provided with a living stipend. I remember attending several of the school’s committee meetings, as they were open to all students and faculty. I ultimately got selected to sit on the DPA Doctoral Admissions Committee. It was on this committee where I learned how to more professionally conduct myself in meetings with senior staff and the dean. I learned a lot about the nuances of written policy and how it was subject to some degree of interpretation. These lessons learned helped me in many ways after I graduated.
How did the faculty at USC influence you and the way you approached your work?
The Health Services program faculty in the early 70s were Dr. Alex Cloner and Dr. Eli Glogow. There was also a young bright graduate assistant named Robert Myrtle. The program was in its infancy, I think I was in the third class. Most of the people in the class were working professionals from local hospitals and LA County. The faculty was constantly challenging us to reach further, to question everything and to use all of our collective experience when dealing with policy questions and the future of the community’s health. I can personally remember Dr. Glowgow hammering me on one of my papers and saying, “Ron I don’t know what I’m going to do with you, but If I can get you out of here with your MPA, you might be able to do some good in the community.” Keep in mind that at the time I had shoulder length hair, a huge Zapata mustache and from time to time wore work coveralls and work boots to class. Needless to say, Eli, Alex and Bob played a huge role in my professional development and helped me along the way after I graduated.
What was your favorite part of being as student at USC Price?
I appreciated the open policy with regard to the school’s governance that existed in the School of Public Administration at the time. All students and faculty were encouraged to get involved in the committee and policy work of the school. The dean would convene an open “Forum” to conduct the school’s business. The term “transparency” had not yet been used in the way that it is used today. However, the school’s “Forum” was the most transparent policy making process I have ever been involved with. It wasn’t clean and easy, but for a young graduate student it was the best learning experience you could ever have. Don’t forget that all of this was over 40 years ago, and my memory has faded a bit since then, but USC has always been a big part of my relative success.