In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, when over 2,900 people lost their lives in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the crash of Flight 93 in a field in Pennsylvania, Carlos Pabellón — who was working at the Discovery Channel in Washington, D.C. — and his wife, like so many other Americans at the time, took stock of their lives and did some soul searching.
“I had to admit to myself that while I enjoyed working at Discovery, it wasn’t really what I had intended on doing when I moved to Washington, D.C.,” said Pabellón, the Dane County Director of Administration. “Why am I here in Washington, D.C.? Was it really just to get the best job that I could? Or was it to do something else? In my case, it was to work for the government and the public. I really wanted to get back into public service. It allowed me — thankfully I was still young enough — to switch careers. And so, the decision was made to apply to law school here in Madison, and was able to come back here with my wife. And we’ve been here ever since.”
Pabellón grew up in the Bronx and got his undergraduate degree from Notre Dame, his first and only extended foray into the Midwest until his wife and he moved to Madison where his wife had a family.
After graduating from UW-Madison Law School, Pabellón worked in private practice for three years before moving over to Dane County as its assistant corporation counsel.
“One of the benefits I had with working for the county as an attorney was learning what the regulations are at the time, learning how they are applied, interpreting them when there was any sort of ambiguity between them and that has been really essential in my position now, to understand that all of these different subsets of rules and regulations and ordinances, how they play together and how they should be read so that there is a harmonious resolution to any conflict,” Pabellón said. “That’s how you are taught in law school. Even if two things seem to disagree with each other, your first job is to try to reconcile them so that you can make it all work.”
About a year ago, Pabellón was tapped by County Executive Joe Parisi to be the interim director of administration and has since been named the permanent director. As the director of administration, Pabellón is almost like a station master, making sure that the trains run on time. Pabellón’s friend says that Pabellón is the “director of anything and everything.” In many ways, Pabellón works behind the scenes to make sure that most everything within the county executive’s purview is operating legally and efficiently and is providing the service that county residents need and expect.
“I make sure that the day-to-day operations are happening in the county appropriately,” Pabellón said. “A lot of that is less interesting stuff like making sure that the payroll goes out, which is very important to our workers. Making sure that each building is being serviced by the janitorial or maintenance staff. Making sure that our IT department has enough resources to provide a kind of the backbone of Internet service that any county employee or county official needs so that they can do their jobs and so that the public can interact with us on the other end as well. There is also making sure that we are treating our employees appropriately. That is a big chunk of my job. They aren’t called unions now in many cases. The sheriff’s deputies are unionized. The building trades council is unionized. But the majority of our employees are in what is called employee groups. The county made a decision a few years ago to regardless of what Act 10 wanted to do — we’ve complied with Act 10 and our employees don’t have the option of a collective group — we have categorized them as an employee group and allow them the opportunity, if they so choose, to be represented by an association so that they could have some kind of representation when we make decisions that might impact their wages or might impact their working conditions.”
And Pabellón’s legal background allows him to interpret the law in a way to ensure that it is applied equitably across county departments.
“That’s what I think people are looking for, regardless of how they are interacting with the county, they just want to know that the regulations or policy are being applied in a fairest, equitable way throughout the county,” Pabellón said. “Whenever it’s not, that’s the interesting part of my job. That’s when I try to come in and fix it. ‘This is how we have been doing things. And just because we’ve been doing it this way for 20 years is not a good reason to continue doing it if we can’t reconcile it with these other bigger rules and regulations out there.’”
Pabellón must also reconcile the authority of the different constitutional officers — the county executive, county supervisors, county sheriff, county clerk, and others — especially when it is not clearly defined where one begins and the other ends.
“Knowing where each official jurisdiction begins and where it ends is really critical to making sure there are no misunderstandings and making sure there is not this ‘scope creep’ that people sometimes get accused of,” Pabellón said. “And so knowing that has helped me be able to work with each elected official appropriately in terms of, ‘Okay, this is what is falling under your purview. How would you like to handle X. Y or Z?’ There are gray areas where the positions begin and end. In those cases, what you are really relying on is sort of the relationships you build here working with them on a day-to-day basis, which is what I really enjoy doing, working with each elected official. Once you have that rapport set in place, then whenever there is a gray area or some sort of issue of controversy, you can work it out that way.”
Pabellón loves the challenge of problem-solving that comes with the job.
“I have to say that public administration isn’t something that I have always dreamed of doing,” Pabellón admitted. “What I’ve enjoyed about the position is this ability to actually act on a problem so that hopefully it can get resolved in a way that benefits everyone. One of the things that I said when I first started here is that as an attorney, you are presented with a question and you answer the question, ‘Yes you can do that or, no you can’t.’ And then that is it. Your role is done. And then you provide advice and guidance through that whole process. But in this role, it allows me to get a quick inkling as to whether or not something is working. And then it allows me to go one step further and say, ‘Okay, let’s try to fix it.’ That’s been really enjoyable.”
Pabellón isn’t sure what else he may be called to do during his career.
“I am still young,” Pabellón said with a laugh. “I think I still have a few more twists in the wind.”
Whatever those twists may be, Pabellón will be somehow in the mix to serve the public and make the government works for them.