Election of land-use chief: It works?
By Martha M. Ireland
for Peninsula Daily News
April 6, 2007
Electing the Director of Community Development makes Clallam County a little too unique for some folks.
Every other land-use development director in the nation is appointed—including Jefferson County’s.
But Clallam’s voters approved a charter review commission proposal—Jefferson has no such commission—that changed the post to an elected office in 2002.
Five years after Clallam’s election, another review of the county’s home rule charter, which Jefferson doesn’t have and which allowed the change, is underway, and voters could be asked to reverse their decision.
Even Rob Robertsen, Clallam’s first elected development director, favors returning the position to appointed status.
Robertsen retired at the end of 2006, after serving a three-year term.
Some say the position requires the kind of technical and legal knowledge you can get only by appointing the director.
However, Robertsen’s testimony before the commission makes a strong case for keeping the post elective, counters Dave Cummins, a commission member.
Cummins is the Sequim surveyor who suggested that electing the development director would increase accountability and solve operational problems within the department.
Cummins agreed with Robertsen that the community development department became “the best it’s been in the last 20 years,” a success that would not have been achieved with an appointed position.
Being elected probably made it easier to adjust personnel and achieve operating efficiencies, such as making it easier to buy better copy machines to speed up staff projects, Robertsen admitted.
If the position were appointed, Robertsen added, “I don’t think they would have selected me.”
When the appointed post was last open in 1995, “they were looking to the outside—at who looked best on their resume,” said Robertsen, who was then Clallam’s building official.
The man with the best resume was Bob Martin, wh was appointed as community development director. But when his job became elective, and he went before the voters in 2004, Martin came out second-best in a three-way race.
Robertsen won, after a third candidate, John Miller, was eliminated in the primary.
Robertsen later hired Martin was later hired as Clallam’s utilities and emergency management chief in the Public Works Department, a “white hat job” Martin says he’s enjoying.
“I wouldn’t go back [to development director] even if they made it appointed,” he told me.
Nor did Martin file when the director’s post came up for election last year.
Robertsen filed, but withdrew his reelection bid after the filing period closed.
That left Miller, then the executive director of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe, as the sole candidate.
Since Miller took office three months ago, “service has stayed steady,” said Cummins, who lauded staff for working with permit applicants to solve problems, rather than “just saying no.”
Miller, who was also elected to the review commission and chosen as its chair, has pledged not to participate in discussions of this topic.
However, when I asked if Miller would be considered a qualified applicant if the post were appointed, he replied, “Probably not.”
Nevertheless, Miller is comfortable in his managerial role, backing a “very skilled staff,” he said.
That skilled staff didn’t come easy.
The turmoil of switching from an appointed to an elected director led to a 65 percent turnover of staff, and “a lot of things that needed to get done didn’t,” Martin said.
“I still think [development director] should be appointed,” Martin said, but his greater concern is the cycle of turmoil that could come if the issue is placed on the ballot every five years.
Recalling the 60-40 margin by which voters made the development director elected, “they’re not going to overturn it, even if it goes to the ballot,” Cummins predicted.
As an elected official, the development director’s annual salary is about $30,000 less than appointed directors received.
A salary of close to $60,000 equals that of Clallam County’s elected commissioners, assessor, auditor and treasurer.
Having an elected director of community development may not always be unique, Cummins added. “This is Clallam County’s chance to be a trend-setter.”
In Jefferson County, it would take state legislative action, or voters would have to adopt a home rule charter, to have an elected community development director.
Should Clallam voters be asked to reconsider having an elected Director of Community Development?
Send comments to: Charter Review Commission, Clallam County Courthouse, 223 E. 4th, Port Angeles 98362, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
The commission meets the first and third Mondays of the month, at 6:30 p.m. in Room 160 of the Clallam County Courthouse, except May 21 when they meet at the Guy Cole Convention Center in Sequim, and June 18 at Forks City Hall.
Committees are currently reviewing:
- Instant Runoff Voting/All Forms of Voting
- Board of Commissioners/County Administrator
- Elected Officials (excluding Judicial Branch)
- Charter Review Frequency/Term of Charter Review Commissioners
- General Provisions (Eminent Domain)
Savings and performance aside, Robertsen said it’s inappropriate to elect officials who don’t set policy, but just administer the law.
However, that’s no different than county assessors, auditors, and treasurers, all of whom are elected, as are sheriffs, prosecutors and judges—plus superior court clerks in non-charter counties, including Jefferson County.
“A lot of people are not competent, but people are impressed by heavy resumes with master’s degrees,” Robertsen said.
The merits and pitfalls of appointing versus electing are debatable.
Appointments don’t always go well, as in the case of Cathleen McKeown, appointed to fill a Clallam auditor’s vacancy and unseated last November by Patty Rosand.
Another example is King County’s headline-making election irregularities, under an appointed auditor and elections supervisor.
Elected officials also have the advantage of most often being local citizens, where appointment processes tends to favor outsiders, but there are exceptions.
Jefferson County community development director Al Scalf graduated from Chimacum High School and returned home after college. Scalf worked for Jefferson County public works until he was promoted to his current post.
Regrettably, Clallam voters were deprived of having a choice of community development candidates on last November’s ballot. Robertsen announced his retirement and withdrew his reelection bid after the filing period closed, which effectively handed the post to Miller.
Miller hasn’t yet shown himself to be an incompetent manager or an unreasonable ideologue. Would Miller have qualified for appointment to the post?
Points in favor of electing include savings because elected officials are paid less than appointees, and having someone who’s familiar with the area because electeds are almost always locals.
But not all appointed officials are recruited from out-of-area. Jefferson County’s Community Development Director Al Scalf is a hometown boy, who found post-college employment in the public works department and was promoted in-house.
But when Spokane and Skagit counties each promoted their building official to department director, those appointments turned out badly, Robertsen said.
Neither electing nor appointing can guarantee an ideal choice of public officials.
“When you get right down to it,” Robertsen said, “it’s probably six of one, half-a-dozen of the other.”
Ironically, Miller, who was elected to the Charter Review Commission at the same time he won his uncontested race for community development director, was chosen as chairman of that panel and is now presiding over the move to ask the voters to reverse their action of five years ago.
That’s a tough case to make considering the positive changes in the Department of Community Development that stem from its being headed by an elected official.
Unless Miller intends to illustrate the hazards of electing by showing himself to be an incompetent ideologue, it would be premature send this issue back to the voters.
Rob (& Betty) Robertsen – 457-4409
John Miller – 417-2323
Al Scalf – 360-379-4450