The State Worker

He made government work. Friends remember a behind-the-scenes state worker.

Joe Munso, former Department of Health and Human Services under secretary who had a hand in developing Covered California, died Jan. 10, 2018.
Joe Munso, former Department of Health and Human Services under secretary who had a hand in developing Covered California, died Jan. 10, 2018. Photo courtesy of Danny Munso

In stressful moments when the fates of governors seemed to hang in the balance, Joe Munso had a way of bringing smiles to Cabinet secretaries and the rank-and-file state workers who supported them.

Take the time a Disney lobbyist wrote an incomplete message saying the entertainment juggernaut agreed to … well, it wasn’t clear what the company agreed to do because the lobbyist didn’t finish his sentence.

Munso, then a high-ranking executive in the Health and Human Services Agency, jokingly filled in the memo.

“The Walt Disney Studios have agreed to label DVDs as the governor requests, provide lifetime free admission for all Health and Human Services employees and will change the name of Mickey Mouse to Mickey Munso.”

Munso’s friends from his long career in civil service are missing that humor since he died earlier this month at age 64. His son said it’s not clear yet what caused Munso’s death. The suddenness stunned legions of state employees who’d worked with him over decades.

“He just so exemplified all that is good and true about public service,” said Kim Belshé, who worked with him closely when she was secretary of Health and Human Services during the Schwarzenegger administration and earlier at the Department of Health Services. The Disney story occurred in her office.

His friends said his biggest achievement in civil service took place after his retirement, when he returned to work on a part-time assignment for the Health and Human Services agency as it developed the Covered California program.

Belshé said Munso’s long experience in state government gave him a distinct ability to make things happen, from focusing employees to figuring out how to leverage federal grants to fund the program.

“It was like a daily missile crisis, where every task was really hard but failure was not an option,” Belshé said.

Munso grew up in Sacramento and held his first job as an entry-level employee at the Department of Social Services. He’s survived by his son, Danny, 35, and daughter Jessica, 33. His wife, Diane, died in 2000.

He’s remembered by others who worked with him as someone who took a common-sense approach to solving problems for the government.

For instance, when news organizations discovered welfare recipients using welfare credits at casinos, Munso recommended that the state investigate other questionable uses of food stamps. It led to a fuller picture that let Schwarzenegger’s administration consider changes to the program.

“He had a really good, practical sense about him,” said Ana Matosantos, a former state director of finance. “He was analytical, but he was a problem solver. He was one of these people who worked his way up and never thought his position made him any better or any worse than any other person.”

Munso’s family is holding a viewing at 5 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 29 at George Klumpp Chapel of Flowers, 2691 Riverside Blvd. A funeral is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 30 at Holy Spirit Parish, 3159 Land Park Drive. A reception will follow, Danny Munso said.

Adam Ashton: 916-321-1063, @Adam_Ashton. Sign up for state worker news alerts at