Public Service Can be a Sacrifice
By Mary Branham, CSG Managing Editor
José R. Negrón Fernández believes it was a natural progression of his heritage for him to enter public service.
“I think what people are in the present comes from their childhood and what they saw and learned from their parents,” said Negrón Fernández, secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Correction and Rehabilitation and a 2013 CSG Toll Fellow.
His father was a judge for 32 years and his grandfather was a public school teacher.
“That fired up in me the interest of, at some point in my career, I would turn to public service,” he said.
It would seem his path was paved to the courtroom— Negrón Fernández spent many hours as a boy in his father’s courtroom.
“I think that since an early age, I saw myself becoming a public service employee, not necessarily a judge,” he said.
But that’s what happened.
In January 2001, then-Gov. Sila María Calderón appointed him as her national security adviser, at which he served for a year before being named administrator of juvenile institutions in Puerto Rico. He was named a superior court judge, serving in both the Fajardo and San Juan judicial regions, before being named administrator of the judicial region for the Arecibo judicial region.
Negrón Fernández earned a bachelor’s in business administration in accounting and international business from American University in Washington, D.C., then graduated from law school at the University of Puerto Rico. After his law school graduation, he clerked in the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico and worked for the second biggest law firm on the island before his public service career began.
Negrón Fernández’ judicial career was moving along when staff for newly elected Gov. Alejandro García Padilla contacted him about meeting with the governor, whom he didn’t know personally. Since Negrón Fernández was a judge, he couldn’t meet publicly so the governor came to his home.
“A governor does not go to your house every day,” said Negrón Fernández.
They spent a little more than two hours talking and Garcia Padilla ended the conversation by offering Negrón Fernández the job of secretary of corrections.
Negrón Fernández wasn’t looking for a change, but he firmly believes in taking advantage of opportunities.
“You have to sacrifice yourself. You have to work hard, but, of course, time is of the essence,” he said. “You have to be at the right place at the right moment. You have to know the right people and you have to look for opportunities. But you have to earn them with your job experience. … You have to keep those doors open.”
Open doors is also a part of Negrón Fernández’ leadership style. It’s important, he said, for team members to feel like they are involved in the decision-making process. To that end, he holds a daily staff meeting to discuss issues and take ideas. If he implements an idea from a staff member, he gives them credit publicly.
“My philosophy is one of open doors to make my team feel they are feel they are part of the important and not so important decisions made here every day,” he said.
That philosophy carried over from his days in the courtroom.
“I mainly moved toward getting people to know the other party’s controversy or point of view in order for them to reach their own agreements and preserve their relationships that are needed in order for them to move on,” he said.
He also believes it’s important to identify the strengths and weaknesses of team members, a lesson he learned from the Toll Fellows program.
“I have more abilities to identify how I’m going to motivate them, because now I can identify individual strengths of a particular member of a team and I am more effective in assigning particular jobs depending on strengths and weaknesses of a particular member,” he said.
Negrón Fernández’ job as corrections secretary keeps him busy and his free time is devoted to his wife, Ana Rosa, who works in the public defender’s office in Puerto Rico, and his children, Christian Jose, 5, and Andrea Paola, 3.
While he enjoys public service, Negrón Fernández said it takes sacrifice. Sometimes, he doesn’t see his children awake for two or three days a week.
“It’s a sacrifice, not only that but in the position I have right now, there are a lot of security issues,” he said.
For instance, he flew to a meeting in December organized by the Association of State Correctional Administrators. He arrived late in the evening and awakened to a message that there was a live threat against him and his wife. The security detail for his family was heightened.
“People don’t realize that public service not only changes your lifestyle, but some of the positions make you to lose your privacy,” he said. “But it’s worth it. I don’t regret it for a minute.”