By Brian Powell
For most of his life, Gilberto “Gil” Villegas rarely had politics on his mind.
The Yuma County deputy chief financial officer, who has spent nearly his entire career in government finance, says after participating in the Flinn-Brown Civic Leadership Academy, he emerged as a political devotee.
“I didn’t use to care much about politics, but now I find myself reading the Arizona Capitol Times and keeping up with politics. It started my curiosity,” Villegas says.
Villegas, who was born in Yuma but raised in San Luis, Mexico, has worked for Yuma County for most of his career. He was initially hired by the county’s finance department, left for three years to serve as assistant director of financial services for the town of Buckeye, and then returned to Yuma County in 2009.
Villegas runs the operations of the county finance department, reviews requests for the $223 million annual budget, serves on the grants advisory committee, interacts with the county Board of Supervisors, prepares all required financial reports, and supervises 21 people.
Outside of work, he serves as treasurer of a Yuma nonprofit organization that provides educational and literacy services to those aged 16 and older.
“My first priority is my community and eventually in the future, will go to the state level and make a difference,” says Villegas, who is considering paths that would lead him to public office or serving on a state board or commission.
Villegas says he valued the geographically diverse makeup of his 2014 Flinn-Brown Academy cohort, the networking that occurs among Fellows, and the Academy’s detailed policy seminars. He remains active with the Flinn-Brown network and meets regularly with another Fellow living in Yuma.
“Flinn-Brown exposes you to all these problems and situations happening right now, but at the same time they introduce you to the people dealing with those problems and the great things they are doing to address them,” Villegas says. “It gave me encouragement to continue doing what I do and continue to believe in public service.”
Flinn-Brown was launched by the Phoenix-based Flinn Foundation in 2010 to develop state-level civic leaders. The program, which receives funding from the Thomas R. Brown Foundations, has a statewide emphasis and attracts professionals from both rural and urban areas.
Villegas was raised and educated across the border in San Luis, Mexico, but when he was ready for college, he decided to take advantage of his citizenship and come to the United States. Villegas took English-as-a-second-language classes at Arizona Western College in Yuma and earned his associate’s degree. He chose to attend Northern Arizona University to force himself to improve his English and earned his bachelor’s degree in accountancy.
He had a short-lived career in the private sector, but he said that wasn’t for him.
“I like the service-oriented atmosphere here in government, the service to constituents and customers, and making sure the dollars are well spent,” Villegas says. “That appealed to me and the pride in providing services to others.”
He attended the Hispanic Leadership Institute in Yuma in 2012. Villegas says the program made him realize the importance of providing a way for high-school dropouts to have a second chance at education. That led him to join the board of the nonprofit, Adult Literacy Plus of Southwest Arizona.
Villegas is currently the treasurer of the organization, providing his financial expertise to the 35-year-old nonprofit. The organization’s mission resonates strongly with him because he once learned English as a young adult.
Adult Literacy Plus of Southwest Arizona provides adult basic education, online GED preparation, ESL classes, and other services. The goal is to eliminate illiteracy throughout the region.
With his ties to county government and the nonprofit, Villegas found the Flinn-Brown seminars about government and education to be especially useful.
“That’s what got my attention,” Villegas says. “I was looking to develop my professional skills so I could be a better public servant.”