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Island County health head is likely interim planning director

Island County commissioners didn’t have to look far to find someone willing and able to fill in as interim planning director.

Keith Higman, the director of the Island County Health Department, volunteered to take on the dual role of leading the two departments. It was an offer the county commissioners couldn’t refuse.

In addition, departing Planning Director Jeff Tate has offered to continue working on certain projects after he leaves his job March 1. He announced his resignation last month, explaining that he wanted to spend time caring for his ailing parents.

The three commissioners agreed to the concepts during a staff session Tuesday afternoon, though the details will be ironed out later. Commissioner John Dean introduced the ideas to the other two commissioners.

“Keith has agreed to step up,” he said, explaining that Higman has pertinent planning experience. “It makes sense to me. There’s no better person.”

Higman didn’t ask for a pay increase. But on Wednesday, Dean said it would only be fair to give him some extra money for taking on the giant task. Nonetheless, Higman’s proposal will likely save the county a lot of money after Tate leaves his $106,000-a-year job.

Higman explained that the planning and health departments have long worked together on programs and projects. In fact, he said the two departments have many similarities and even overlap in some types of work they perform.

“There’s some opportunities here for efficiencies, both structurally and programatically,” he said.

Higman said Tate is in favor of handing the reins to his long-time colleague. Tate, who wasn’t at work this week, wants to ensure that the transition is as easy as possible for those left behind.

“I’m a known quantity. I’m not hated too bad in the ranks ,” he quipped. “It makes a great deal of sense for me to take over administration.”

Dean also discussed the merits of keeping Tate on as a contract employee to complete certain work that requires a professional planner. He said Tate was especially interested in continuing his work of creating a new design manual and regulations for development within Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, however, expressed some reluctance about the proposals, especially after Human Resources Director Larry Larson said it would take at least six months to get a new, permanent planning director onboard.

“I appreciate your willingness to do this, but I don’t think it’s a six-month solution,” she told Higman.

Price Johnson said she was concerned that folks in the planning department would build a loyalty to Higman which would make it difficult for a new planning director to create a team.

“We have an organization that is going through traumatic change,” she said.

Indeed, former planning director Phil Bakke left a year and a half ago after he was appointed to the board of county commissioners, but then he lost in the election to Price Johnson. Tate took over, but now he’s leaving. The assistant planning director left during a recent round of job cuts in the department. Eight positions were lost because of budget cuts.

In the end, Price Johnson agreed that Higman would be the best interim director of the planning department. Commissioner Angie Homola said she wants the commissioners to have a meeting with Higman and Tate to work out the job descriptions.

“I don’t want anyone to think you’re going to get 120 hours of work,” Higman said. “That’s an impossibility with three kids and a demanding wife.”

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