Commissioners to hire first county administrator

Island County government will soon have a county administrator for the first time in its history.

Unless background checks don’t go as expected, Island County government will soon have a county administrator for the first time in its history.

The Island County commissioners contracted with the national head-hunting firm Prothman to find candidates. The commissioners interviewed the two finalists in executive session earlier this month and held a meet-and-greet event for the community to speak with them informally.

Human Resources staff is currently checking references and negotiating a contract. The annual salary for the position is set at $135,000-$155,000. The commissioners may make a final hiring decision in early December.

The finalists are Martin Casey, the former city manager for the small city of Sunnyside, Washington, and Jeff Watson, the current director of economic and community development for the city of Dearborn, Michigan.

Commissioner Melanie Bacon said other counties of the same size as Island County have county administrators, who run the day-to-day operations of departments under the commissioners’ purview.

“Having someone in this position will allow us to concentrate on the important policy issues that the community cares about,” Bacon said.

Commissioner Jill Johnson agreed, saying that the citizens are asking the commissioners to take on increasingly complex policy issues.

“A three-bodied CEO and policy structure leaves us stretched on the policy side and the administrative sides,” she said. “We need to take steps to shore up the organization before it cracks.”

County government is divided into offices headed by independent elected officials and departments run by directors hired and managed by the commissioners. The commissioners set the budget for all offices, but the ones they directly manage include planning, public works, public health, human services and information technology.

Bacon said the commissioners end up spending a lot of time on the minutiae of administration, such as hiring, setting salaries and discipline. She said commissioners have been discussing hiring an administrator for many years, but it just never happened.

The commissioners created a similar position last year, but it didn’t work out. The administrative services director oversaw the “internet facing” departments, like human resources, budget and risk management. Bacon said the job description wasn’t well thought out, and the woman hired in the position quit shortly after being hired.

Johnson said the new county administrator’s role will be more clear. The person in the position will act with the full authority of the board of commissioners on administrative matters, she said.

The county administrator, however, will not be involved in policy decisions and will not represent the board to the public, the commissioners explained.

Bacon said the board likes both the candidates and either would make a good county administrator.

The Sunnyside Sun newspaper reported that Casey announced he was resigning as city manager in August; the article indicated that he and his partner made the decision to leave after reflection prompted by the pandemic.

The article indicates that Casey made positive changes in the community of about 15,000 population in Yakima County. He led the city in getting its first clean audit in a decade and he brought the budget into balance. Voters approved a tax increase for a Transportation Benefit District and the city went a record two years without a homicide under his tenure.

Prior to Sunnyside, Casey was the director of the Central Services Department in Thurston County from 2013-2018. He worked for the state from 1997-2013; he started the Human Rights Commission and served in leadership positions in other state offices.

Casey has a master’s degree in political science from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a bachelor’s degree in international relations from the University of California, Davis.

Watson, the other candidate, is currently the director of economic and community development in Dearborn. Prior to that, he was the community services manager in Federal Way, Washington, for five years, and he worked as division manager for Housing and Community Services for Snohomish County.

Watson worked for the Community Development Department in Douglas County, Colorado from 2000-2009, serving as assistant director for community services for the last three years. He has a master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Washington and a master’s degree in urban planning and a bachelor’s degree in history, both from the University of Colorado.