Katherine Miller inherited a string of scandals and problems when she stepped in as Santa Fe County manager in 2010.
Before she took the helm, the county public works director had been placed on administrative leave and was under investigation for taking cash bribes.
The sheriff resigned a short time later after he admitted he had stolen county-owned property and sold it on eBay for personal gain.
A multimillion-dollar courthouse project had stalled and was just a hole in the ground.
And the county was under the spotlight for paying $7 million for 470 acres near La Cienega but having no plan for the property.
“One of the things I was asked [when interviewing for the job] what, ‘Could you help lead us in a new direction, a different direction?’ ” Miller recalled in a wide-ranging interview Wednesday, a day after announcing she was retiring after a 25-year public service career.
The County Commission said Tuesday it has selected County Attorney Greg Shaffer to replace her. He is expected to step into the job in May, and Miller will aid with the transition.
Miller said she wanted to take on the challenge “because I knew that was not the county, having worked here before.”
She previously worked as the county’s procurement manager and finance director.
“Sure, there’s always things that maybe we could do better, and maybe there are things we wish didn’t happen or didn’t plan to have happen,” she said, “but I also knew that how the county was being portrayed publicly was not the core of what this organization is or how they performed for the constituents.”
While the county still stumbles occasionally, Miller, 58, has transformed its reputation to one of a well-run organization over the past 11½ years.
“I think what she brought to the position, especially as the years went by, what a level of professionalism that [didn’t exist] prior to her,” said Roman “Tiger” Abeyta, a former Santa Fe city councilor who served as a county manager before Miller.
“In the 20 years that I was at the county, we had eight managers with myself included, so we averaged a county manager like every two, two and a half years,” Abeyta said. “I was county manager for four years, but I think she brought a stability to the position and also kind of a change in reputation of the position.”
Abeyta said the county manager’s job used to be considered a “political position.”
“She removed that political element from it and established it as more of a professional position, which it should have been all along,” he said.
Steve Kopelman, executive director of New Mexico Counties, said Miller is “extremely conscientious” and one of the hardest-working people he’s ever met.
“She’s sharp as an arrow, and she knows how to get things done,” said Kopelman, who was the county attorney when Miller first went to work for the county as its procurement manager.
“I think she is one of the top county managers in the state, without question,” he added. “She has tremendous respect among her peers.”
Miller didn’t set out for a career in public service.
The daughter of an Air Force officer who moved about every two to three years as a kid, Miller went to Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, on an art scholarship with the intent of becoming a commercial artist.
“My mom said I probably came out of the womb drawing,” she said.
But in college, Miller started to look at what commercial artists earned at the time.
“Well, I thought maybe I should get on the business side of things,” she said, laughing, “so I changed my major to a Bachelor of Science in business, marketing and management.”
At age 33 and in the midst of a divorce, she came to New Mexico, where her late mother lived.
“I had decided I was just going to come to Santa Fe for a few months and figure out what I was going to do from there,” she said.
One day, she was flipping through the newspaper and saw a job announcement for the county’s purchasing manager. After graduating from college and getting married, Miller worked as a procurement manager, as well as the manager of an energy conservation company, and had run an accounting office.
Miller applied and got the job.
“I loved working at the county from the first time I started here in 1997,” she said.
About a year and a half later, Miller was promoted to finance director.
“It was challenging because I was the fifth finance director in five years,” she said. “It was a little daunting because I didn’t want to be let go of. It was my first appointed position. It wasn’t classified. It was at will, and I had just bought a house like six weeks before.”
After former Gov. Bill Richardson was elected, Miller joined his administration as deputy chief of staff of policy and projects in the spring of 2003.
“Talk about fast paced and learning on my feet. Every day was a learning experience,” she said.
The following year, Miller became executive director of the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority, where she established the Housing Trust Fund and the affordable housing tax credit. In 2006, Richardson appointed Miller as cabinet secretary of the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration.
As Richardson’s administration was coming to an end, Miller started looking for other work and was being considered for a job as the financial services director for the city of San Diego.
Around the same time, a Santa Fe County commissioner called Miller and asked if she was interested in returning to the county as manager, which she did in 2010.
“I really … welcomed a challenge to branch out into more general management, not just financial management,” she said. “While it was Santa Fe County — and that was great because I knew the county — it was also a much broader range of issues and a much broader level of management … and looking at the entire county and how do we move the entire county forward .”
Miller cites several accomplishments under her tenure, including developing a comprehensive land development code and growth management plan, which the county had tried to do for decades.
“Does it still need improvements? yes Could we make the process more streamlined? Yes, and we’re working on that,” she said.
Miller said the county is in great financial shape.
“We went from AA bond rating to now AAA,” she said. “We just got reaffirmed by Standard and Poor’s last week, and we are positioned to respond to any economic situations that are thrown our way.”
Richardson called Miller “an incomparable public servant.”
“She has been a compassionate and fiscally responsible executive for a long time,” Richardson wrote in an email. “However I believe that her retirement will be short lived. She is a workaholic with a great public interest. She wants to be back!”
Miller said she has no plans to return to work.
“In 2019, I was diagnosed with cancer. While I am now cancer-free, I haven’t physically recovered from the stress that that put on me and my body,” she said.
As she was coming out of her treatments, the coronavirus pandemic started, she said.
“I lost my dog of 15 years almost immediately and then I lost my mother, and I never took time off in either of those circumstances,” she said. “I took the bare minimum to bury my mother and the bare minimum to get through my treatments.”
After the pandemic hit, Miller said she felt a moral obligation to “stay and try to work us out of” the pandemic.
“But now, I would like to step away from the stress and take time with my husband and family and just get some time to myself to heal because this will suck the life out of anybody,” she said, laughing.
Miller said she doesn’t think she could be happier with how her career turned out.
“I have absolutely loved the opportunities that were given to me,” she said. “I love New Mexico. I love Santa Fe, and I have felt honored and privileged to be able to serve in roles where I’ve hopefully made a difference.”
Miller publicly announced her retirement during Tuesday’s County Commission meeting.
Deciding to retire likely was harder for her than most people, she said, adding, “I feel very blessed and grateful that this was such a difficult decision for me. I’ve been the manager for over 11.6 years or 4,240 days, to be exact, today. But who’s counting?”
Miller described her time as a county manager as “one of the most rewarding and also most challenging positions” of her 40-year career.
Though commissioners were aware of her announcement beforehand, it left several of them teary-eyed.
“It makes me very sad to know that you’re leaving,” Commissioner Anna Hansen said. “There are clearly not words that we can all express our gratitude. … I know that many people will be very surprised and I guess shocked by the fact that you’re leaving. But at the same time, we’re lucky we had you for the time that we did, so thank you.”
Commissioner Hank Hughes, executive director and co-founder of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, jokingly questioned whether the commission could vote to reject Miller’s retirement.
“I won’t go on quite as long as Commissioner Hansen because men aren’t supposed to cry,” said Hughes, who has known Miller for 20 years.