"His abilities have outgrown our county," Cleveland said.
Still, the county has suffered a contentious relationship with the Sutter County Taxpayers Association, said Bob Mackensen, former president of the 80-member association.
The taxpayers group has criticized the county over a pension plan increase passed in 2004 that considerably boosted retirement payouts for many employees. County leaders said it was a way to attract more qualified workers; the taxpayers association complained it was government waste.
Mackensen said he'd be "lighting fireworks" to celebrate Combs' departure. "We are looking forward to the day he leaves," he said. "I think all the taxpayers would say that."
A native of Washington state, Combs began his career in San Diego in 1971 as an analyst for the county's welfare department. He became an assistant chief administrator for Kings County in 1978 before moving to Sutter in 1983.
He holds a bachelor's degree and a master's degree, both in public administration from San Diego State University, he said.
Earlier this year Merced County hired CPS Human Resource Services, a Sacramento-based headhunting firm, to assist in its CEO search. Roughly two dozen hopefuls applied for the job; the Board of Supervisors interviewed four of them behind closed doors last month.
Tatum, who is 62, is slated to leave the county Dec. 18, three weeks after Combs is expected to start.
Assuming his appointment is confirmed, Combs will earn a yearly base salary of $205,000, plus car, phone and expense allowances.
Combs said he is engaged to be married and that he plans to move to Merced soon with his fiancée. He has five grown children and six grandchildren.
Combs will be the fifth CEO to serve the county in the past 50 years.