San Juan County planning director fired; deparment to consolidate

By Scott Rasmussen
San Juan Island Journal


San Juan Island, WA - County commissioners Aug. 12 consolidated the Planning Department and the Permit Center and fired Planning Director Laura Arnold.

Arnold’s ouster leaves her future in local government in limbo after nearly 20 years of public service. It also appears to answer the question as to who will lead the consolidated department once the merger is complete. The commission is expected to finalize the merger on Aug. 18.

Her termination as director of long-range planning followed a closed-door meeting in which Arnold’s performance was called into question.

Commissioner Rhea Miller defended the department and its achievements under Arnold’s leadership. However, she was outnumbered by her colleagues 2-1.

“I voted against it because Laura Arnold is worth her weight in gold,” said Miller, who has also opposed the consolidation.

Commissioners John Evans and Darcie Nielsen voted to terminate Arnold and move ahead with consolidation. Nielsen declined to comment on details of the closed-door meeting but acknowledged “there were issues” about Arnold’s performance. Evans, clearly frustrated earlier in the day at the lack of progress on the issue of barge landings, said the outcome signifies “a vote of no-confidence in the director’s performance” despite the split decision.

Arnold's termination drew sharp criticism from local environmental advocates. Stephanie Buffum, executive director of Friends of the San Juans, said the decision undermines 25 years of grassroots planning and calls into question the commitment of the county as stewards of the environment and its employees.

Two-thirds of the professional planning staff has now been eliminated and Arnold’s ouster is “premature at best” regardless of consolidation, Buffum said.

“Laura Arnold defines what it means to be a public servant,” Buffum said. “Her firing is totally unjustified and it leaves one professional planner for the entire county at a time when we’re wrestling with 40 percent growth during the past decade. It’s absurd.”

Following her dismissal, commissioners unanimously agreed to offer Arnold a position in the consolidated department. The nature of that job has yet to be determined. She’ll have a minimum of 30 days to decide whether to accept the post. Nielsen said Arnold indicated during the closed session that she’s willing to remain with the county.

“She’s been assured of a job offer in the consolidated department,” said Nielsen, a former county planner who once worked under Arnold. “It was not an easy day by any means.”

Nielsen believes $107,000 in annual payroll expenses and administration costs can be saved by combining the agencies. The plan includes one director in the consolidated department; Permit Center Director Joseph McKenna-Smith appears to be the heir-apparent. Nielsen praised his managerial skills and believes environmental protection will benefit if Arnold joins McKenna-Smith and Deputy Director Francine Shaw in the consolidated department.


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