Whidbey News-Times


New Island County planning director needs to be able to sort out past transgressions

April 30, 2013 · Updated 3:01 PM

Island County has experienced problems over the past several years in the operation of a smooth, community-oriented planning department.

It’s my opinion — and that of others, but I speak herein only for myself — that this lack of direction and focus on serving the public comes from the very top of the planning department.

The public is not served well when there’s a real or perceived lack of leadership and positive guidance in one of our most important county offices.

Taxpayers deserve better than what they’ve been offered in the past. It is in this light that I’ve thought about qualities that the next director should bring to the table and what the commissioners might seek to accomplish when the next director of planning and community development is chosen.

If it were my call:

1. I’d make certain that the mistakes and politicization of the position of director — and basically the entire planning department — not be further politicized.

To the extent that it currently is — I’d correct that situation immediately with hands-on guidance and personnel changes. No more “good old boy” or political agenda-driven hiring, please.

2. A good director should be hired for his or her dedication, loyalty, professional skills and local knowledge.

I don’t think these qualities have been a priority for the past decade or more.

A good director should not be hired on the basis of a well-constructed resume alone. We should certainly not solicit the employ of an individual who has been terminated by his or her previous employer, unless there were extenuating circumstances.

A confidential inquiry of the previous employer might save us a lot of time, trouble,  heartburn and threats of future lawsuits against the county.

3. A significant part of Island County, especially the Second District, is business and NAS Whidbey intensive.

As such, reasonable, sustainable growth and living wage jobs should be a priority for the county as a whole.

You simply cannot cut staff, programs, and raise taxes in a vain attempt to close the fiscal holes in our bleeding county budget. Bureaucratic triage is not sound fiscal management — even though it’s been tried over and over in the past — it has always failed.

Repeating the same actions while expecting a difference result makes one susceptible to a negative clinical diagnosis.

But make no mistake, the bottom line always is this: You cannot tax-and-spend your way to prosperity.

I, for one, am tired of our young people feeling they must leave the island for “better jobs.” A lack of understanding of basic economic principles has been a problem in the past, and it’s been aided and abetted by the Growth Management Act becoming politicized over the past two decades.

The GMA has now become synonymous with slow, no, or a primarily green-only growth focus, and it should not be that way.

The only genuine path to maintain and increase quality of life, economic progress, meaningful community support programs, and positive two-way relations with the public is through principled and thoughtful growth.

Personal qualities of a good director might include:

• The ability to think through issues clearly and consult with knowledgeable and experienced staff-members for their input. You are in charge and ultimately responsible, but listen to your people.

As a corollary to this, be able and willing to provide credible, clear, and uniform direction and advice to staff members and the BOICC.

Be possessed of a willingness to interpret GMA in ways that will maximize individual and business freedom to plan, grow, and prosper in logical, sustainable ways that will do no harm.

Be good stewards of what we have; be a thoughtful conservationist as opposed to a “hand’s-off the environment” preservationist.

Anticipate unintended consequences and plan accordingly, instead of merely reacting to the latest crisis, whether it is real or imagined. Be an “expert” on the GMA and sign off on policies and decisions that will stand up to any challenges. Know more about the subject of growth management than the “other guy.”

• Work and interact with your staffers in a manner that will reward you with the respect and confidence of the entire County staff. You deserve respect only by earning it, it’s never a given that it comes with the job. In turn, make certain your staff respects the public and they become “helpers” instead of the all too often perceived role as rude, arrogant government impediments to smooth and efficient community solutions.

• Shepherd available resources like they were the special, precious, and private property of the citizenry — because in reality let’s face it — that is the case with all government resources. They come from and will always belong to the public — not the government entity.

• Along with respect for the public, make yourself available to them on a regular or request basis.

All too often, public employees are not available to the public — an irony that if allowed to become policy does not avoid “problems,” but rather makes for problems, misunderstandings, and unhappy citizens.

• Resolve contentious issues quickly and fairly. Do not allow situations to develop — long term — that inevitably become your Achilles heel, usually to the detriment of your own and your department’s credibility.

Above all — a successful planning director will demonstrate and use common sense.



Richard Hart is an Oak Harbor resident who served on the Island County Planning Commission from 1994 to 2000.


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