I typically had a plan in life for what I would do next,” Rita Neal said. But in 2012 when she was offered the position of County Counsel to lead the department’s legal team, Rita admits it was a bit of a surprise. “I didn’t have a plan for that!” she laughed. She does acknowledge that learning to be flexible and open to a change of plans ultimately led her to what she calls “truly a dream job.”
As a teenager, Rita planned to be a home economics teacher some- where close to her small hometown of Sonora, in the Sierra Nevada foothills. “My mother, an accomplished seamstress, made all our clothes and my grandmother did a lot of canning so it just seemed like a good idea at the time,” she mused. Later on, when Rita was enrolled at Cal Poly on that very path, she received a fortuitous call from her brother who was planning on attending law school. “He said he thought I’d really like a career in law and should think about it,” she said. Realizing her initial plan wasn’t actually a good fit for her—“I’m really not that domestic,” she divulged—she decided to explore her brother’s suggestion and see for herself if it was time to make a change.
An internship around her school schedule with the SLO District Attorney’s office working in the consumer fraud division sold her on the idea. “I took phone calls from the public with issues like bad checks, car dealers selling lemon cars, landlord-tenant complaints. My job was to refer them to the appropriate agency. The phone rang quite a bit; it was a busy program,” she said. Rita said she got to know the deputy district attorneys, the investigators and the system. “I got a good foot in the door,” she said. “I knew then I wanted to come back after law school and be a prosecutor.”
Home Economics degree in hand, Rita enrolled at Santa Clara University School of Law where the ‘big city’ environment created a bit of culture shock. “For a small town girl, being in the Bay Area required some adjustment and though I ended up liking it I knew eventually I wanted to come back to SLO,” she said. In addition to her studies, Rita also clerked in the San Jose law firm of Hoge, Fenton, Jones and Appel. Summers, she interned for the firm’s SLO office where, after graduating and earning her Juris Doctorate, she was hired and began her career on a civil litigation track. She remained with the firm—now Hall Hieatt & Connely—for eight years and, at the very time she had an opportunity to become a partner, fate intervened in the form of a career opportunity working in the County Counsel’s office.
In 1998, switching gears from private practice to public service, Rita started out as Deputy County Counsel working on legal assignments for General Services like property management, building and fleet contracts, but also working with the public guardian to establish conservatorships for the elderly or mentally ill. “We obtained court orders to assist those in need and I worked with a wonderful group of social workers that really cared about the well-being of those that couldn’t take care of themselves,” she said. “The work was interesting and I felt like I was doing something that mattered. I saw myself as being Deputy for the remainder of my career.”
It wasn’t long after that she was promoted to Chief Deputy Counsel then to Assistant Counsel where she served under the tutelage of County Counsel Warren Jensen until his retirement in 2012. She used this time in her capacity as Assistant to learn as much as she could about the county departments and says, “Warren was very supportive and an important person in my career.” When Warren retired, Rita was appointed to take over as County Counsel; in the county’s history she is only the third person—and first woman—to hold the position.
When she first took the helm, Rita was told, “You’ll have some sleepless nights but they’ll be worth it.” In addition to an increased workload, her new job description included staff supervision—which can be tricky when one day you’re all co-workers and the next day you’re the boss, she said. “I had conversations with everyone where I acknowledged the situation and asked for their trust and respect. I emphasized that I wanted to have a positive office and also preserve the legacy of the department.” Rita said that she handles an array of fascinating and complex issues assisted by a team of brilliant lawyers, incredible employees and elected officials. “We consider ourselves problem solvers here. We are not the office of ‘No,’ she said. “When we engage with clients or the public we are not the department they dread to see. We are here to use our skills as lawyers and though the answers aren’t always the ones people want, they know we are doing our best job to help them.” At the same time, Rita, flashing her 1,000-watt smile, said a bit of levity in the workplace helps too. “We find a reason to laugh every day.”
One of Rita’s most important jobs is working with the County Board of Supervisors and County department heads. “It’s important to me to have a trusting relationship with each person and I take this very seriously. I work hard to acknowledge the trust placed in me and be as engaged as I can be,” she said, adding, “It’s a pretty profound responsibility because our local government touches everyone.”
Her journey thus far, Rita said, has included “the support of amazing wonderful friends and mentors along the way. These are people who trusted me, believed in me and even propped me up when I felt overwhelmed by it all.” She particularly credits mentors Paul Coffee, Don Ernst, Jim Lindholm and Jac Crawford—attorneys all— among those who taught her valuable lessons.
The natural qualities, talent and leadership abilities Rita brings to the workplace were formed over her early life growing up in Sonora with four older brothers and lots of family around. Her mother, Margaret Sciaroni, who Rita says inspired confidence and self-reliance in her children, worked several jobs to support her family. “My mom taught me that I had to find ways to be self-sufficient. She was loving and a good mother but I learned I had to make my own way in the world.” Rita was close to her grandmothers, aunt and uncle who helped care for her as a young girl. During high school, Rita showed her early mettle in sports (captain of the tennis team) and leadership (class president) and also worked in a fabric store.
Though she now lives a few hours away from her hometown, Rita maintains a strong connection with her family. And perhaps due to recollections of her aunt working in the garden, Rita enjoys grow- ing roses in her own Shell Beach home garden; from her 25 prolific bushes, Rita says she loves sharing the fragrant bounty with her friends. “I have an amazing and wonderful life,” she says. “I have heartfelt and deep friends, I love to run, read and spend time outside.” She likes to travel and lists New York, Cabo San Lucas, Nashville and British Columbia as some recent favorites, but she says, “I love to come home. I have great neighbors and live right on the beach.”
In all, Rita says she looks for a highlight every day and while there can be trying days that aren’t easy, it helps that she has a strong support system, flexibility, and a balanced life. Her advice? “Work hard but surround yourself with family and friends and activities that motivate and fulfill you.” Which sounds very much like a plan worth sticking to.