By Scott MacClelland
His day job is Monterey County Assessor, the guy who determines how much property tax homeowners and commercial property owners owe. But for an even longer time his weekend job has been booking bands, producing benefit concerts and “hundreds of festivals” in various venues including commercial clubs, and, for the last 11 years, the hugely popular annual West End Celebration in Sand City. (See our Calendar page.) Steve Vagnini is an elected public servant with an abiding need to do the right thing, including vigorous, hands-on engagement with community non-profits all around the county.
Like many, Vagnini’s youthful university education—religious studies and philosophy—did not point toward the career path that brought him to where he is today. However, his charitable work distils those principles and his personal values. These values not only bring music and art together but extend to promoting and protecting the natural environment. At West End, for example, there will be a fashion show by designers who have come up with stylish new couture made from “old stuff.” Vagnini’s blog includes: “I have helped develop the West End’s Green Scene into a vehicle for promoting sustainability and alternative energy, displaying electric vehicles, solar power and recycle programs.”
With all of that, how did he wind up as County Assessor? After finishing the oral exams for his master’s degree, he drove across the country with his girlfriend who was a student at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. “I did a lot of things, owned a bookstore at Heritage Harbor,” he says. “I looked around for a job as a philosopher but no one was hiring.” He moved to Boston to work in finance, developed a background in real estate and appraisal. “When I came back to Monterey, I needed a real job.” With good math and communication skills, both orally and in writing, the County Assessor’s office gave him an opportunity. “I took on as much work as possible, soaked up as much knowledge as I could.” That included tasks that his colleagues found daunting. “In the ‘90s I started doing hotels and commercial property.” When the previous assessor retired, Vagnini got elected to the job for the first time. His three-plus decades of putting on performance events and festivals had made him very well known in the county. One could say with certainty that his name is literally a household word. (His office also assesses boats, planes, keeps track of county mapping, records all deeds and maintains vital statistics, among other tasks.) He has worked in the assessor’s office for 28 years, the last 11 as the elected Assessor. “My degree taught me ethics,” he says. “That’s what public service is supposed to be all about.”
Meanwhile, he co-founded and serves as president of the Monterey County chapter of Guitars not Guns, a non-profit that provides free guitar lessons and guitars to youth throughout Monterey County. In the last three years the chapter has donated over 400 guitars. Volunteer instructors have conducted classes in Castroville, King City, Gonzales, Seaside and Marina. “We have developed working relationships with Rancho Cielo Youth Campus, the Alisal Fine Arts Center, Community Partnership for Youth, and the Boys and Girls Clubs,” he says with pride.
Like most teenagers, Vagnini fell into music with gusto and started playing and singing with friends in bands. Unlike most teenagers, his family dragged him off to Greece at the same time. (His father was in the CIA when the vulnerable Greek monarchy was caught up in the Cold War struggle between the usual suspects.) But what had seemed to him to be an “Oh no” turned into a “How cool” experience. Greece and its Aegean islands “hadn’t really been discovered” by the wide world of tourism. “They called it a Golden Era,” he says.
Like many teens and young adults at the time, he pursued a liberal arts education, which included studies in political science, then grew disillusioned with American politics during the Vietnam War and became active in the anti-war movement. “We didn’t think about jobs back then. In retrospect, I spun my wheels for many years.”
Citing political polarization in today’s America, and the social isolation spawned by modern technology, including social media, Vagnini says about West End, “We need this, especially today.” He notes that less than 20 percent of attendance and ticket sales to West End activities come from outside Monterey County. Still, with music, theater, visual artists, food and celebration, “It’s a great community event.”
West End headliners on the Main Stage include guitar icon Sonny Landreth, “the King of Slydeco” Saturday at 4:30pm. Chris Cain, “The future of Blues,” takes the stage at 3:30pm. Guitars Not Guns graduates “pay it forward” at 11am. On Sunday, at 4, Moonalice plays the Main Stage. Tommy Faia and The Juice appear at 2. Click the link HERE.