DCD director fires county planning manager

Posted on Wednesday 07 July 2004
Sequim Gazette

Clallam County, WA - County Department of Community Development director Rob Robertsen made the first major staff change since his November election: firing planning manager Andy Meyer.

Meyer, a 7.5-year department veteran, was told June 28 to clear out his desk and leave that day. Meyer suggested Robertsen had political motivations for the dismissal - an allegation the department director denied, citing dissatisfaction with Meyer's leadership in the planning department.
"The disadvantages with Andy had nothing to do with the function or the mission of the department as far as enforcing codes," Robertsen said. "He's implying that vision will be lost without him but I have an incredibly experienced staff to say that we're going to lose vision of the future because we lose one person isn't a valid argument."
Robertsen received strong financial backing during last year's election - the first time the department's director was chosen by voters rather than appointed by commissioners - from builders and property rights advocates frustrated by the red tape and perceived delays associated with building applications in the administration of former department director Bob Martin. Robertson's election marked the change from an appointed to an elected DCD director position.
County residents voted in the change the previous November.
As planning manager, Meyer was responsible for overseeing both the current and long-range planning for the county. Robertsen said he was not happy with Meyer's performance as a manager - he cited what he called Meyer's failure to provide guidance and supervision to staff about things like attendance and a refusal to accept certain assignments or complete others - and fired him for that, not a personal or political motivation.
On the other hand, Meyer contended that he was unaware of any management concerns other than discussions about minor changes and felt instead the firing possibly was politically motivated.
"If we're looking to shift resources and focus them more on building then it could be kind of obvious for folks there is a political motivation," Meyer said in a telephone interview. He added that Robertsen must now determine where the resources are going to go: "In helping to facilitate and expedite business permits, or in dealing with land use issues."
In a letter faxed to area media, Meyer noted that Clallam County is faced with increasing building permit and construction activity and is at risk of losing the quality of life that many find attractive "without proper planning and a clearly articulated vision for the future."
"Planning in Clallam County right now is not just about an expedient permit process," Meyer stated.
County commissioner Steve Tharinger, D-Dungeness, said he believes Meyer's strong points are in long-range planning and the effect of his firing won't be known for several months.
"I think we'll know more in a month or two what Andy's input was in those processes," Tharinger said.
He added that he didn't want to second-guess Robertsen's motivations because hiring decisions fall within the DCD director's responsibilities but said the decision might be a conflict of planning philosophies and in what the Robertsen expected of his planning director.
Bob Vail, chair of the volunteer county planning commission, echoed Tharinger's praise of Meyer's planning abilities.
"He always made sure all sides and facets of an issue were on the table without biasing our decisions ever," Vail said of Meyer.
He described Meyer's role as providing information and answering questions posed by commission members about technical questions and possible long-range planning and legal effects.
Vail added that Meyer let his staff lead discussions on areas of their expertise, filling in where needed and providing comprehensive input. He added that with one less planner for the members of the planning commission to go to for information and advice their ability to do their job could be harmed.
"I'm waiting to see if there's a plan to replace Mr. Meyer with a new planning manager," Vail said.
Although Vail praised the counsel Meyer provided in his capacity as senior liaison between the commission and county staff, he stopped short of stating whether he felt Robertson's decision was a good one or not; Vail said he didn't have enough information to make that kind of judgment.
Robertsen said he never had fault with Meyer's planning expertise, just his management style.

Revamping the planning department
The department currently has three planners working on short-term issues and two planners in long-range planning. Robertsen recently hired an assistant planner to fill the critical areas ordinance position vacated last fall by former planner Dave Lasorsa. However, instead of having the new guy - Spencer Bugby - focus solely on critical areas, Robertsen said the responsibility would be split between him and two other planners.
It's part of Robertsen's cross-training management philosophy. He also wants his department managers to be working managers.
"We are short-handed, there's no doubt about it," Robertsen said, noting that Jefferson County has about twice the number of planners as Clallam County with a smaller work load. "But I believe that can be made up by efficient use of personnel."
So, when he hires a replacement for Meyer he wants it to be a new assistant planner instead of a more experienced person for a management position, he said. However, he would first have to get permission from county commissioners to create a new position.
Instead of a single planning manager, Robertsen is having the current senior people in long-range and current planning - Steve Gray and Tim Woolett, respectively - function as department managers. They would manage all but budgetary and hiring decisions as working managers.
The heavy workload of the county's planners is a point of agreement between Meyer and Robertsen.
"We have a very challenging staff workload, a difficult budget time coming up and the update to the county's comprehensive plan," Meyer said. "We have a lot of issues facing this county as it grows."
Meyer said he is concerned that the realignment of the department signals a paradigm shift away from prudent planning to a focus solely on permit-approval.
"I am sickened about what this could mean for the existing staff and the added workload for them," Meyer said. "To remove a critical position and a policy position that could help an elected director it does not seem to make much sense."
Robertsen countered that it makes complete sense for department efficiency.
"Where we have a need in planning is in day-to-day issues," Robertsen said. "I am short-handed in workers. I was never short-handed in leadership."
He noted that Meyer and Martin changed the nature of Meyer's job to be a department second-in-command rather than a division leader, like the managers of the building, environmental health, and other department divisions. One of the first things Robertsen did when he took office was to reduce Meyer's duties to be comparable to the other division leaders - with a commensurate cut in pay of about $5,000 per year.
He also made the position exempt from union representation, as county law permits department heads to do for one position. Robertsen said this was to keep the position - often the focus of controversy - from being influenced by union considerations and was not a precursor to eliminating the post.
The plan to seek the hire of an assistant planner as Meyer's replacement was an afterthought after the decision to fire him was made, Robertsen said.
--by Leif Nesheim and Dan Ross
Published 7.07.04

Copyright © 2004 Olympic View Publishing. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed for any commercial purpose without permission of the Sequim Gazette.

NOTE: Clallam County is the first county in the nation to create an elected position for the Director of the Department of Community Development, through a change in the Clallam County Home Rule Charter several years ago.



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