New planning director hopes to improve service

The new head of Island County’s planning department knows that it has some unhappy customers. Too many unhappy customers, she said.

“I am really excited to create a cooperative image,” Planning Director Jessica Carpenter said.

County Human Resources Director Melanie Bacon recommended Carpenter for the position at a Jan. 8 work session, and commissioners unanimously agreed to offer her the job. Carpenter had been working in finance for the Washington State Department of Transportation.

She’s worked for 17 years in varied fields, including planning, public policy, economic development and environmental programs in Idaho, Texas and Washington.

She wants to focus on the customer-service aspect of planning, especially when it comes to training employees and creating a “collective mindset” within the department. She began Jan. 21 and has been working on creating an action plan to reduce permit processing times. She said regulations still need to be followed, but final decisions need to be made more quickly.

“I just really want to move in a positive direction,” Carpenter said.

In October, commissioners granted former planning director Hiller West’s request to step down as director to become development service manager. He cited personal reasons.

When selecting Carpenter as the new head of the department, commissioners cited her leadership skills and customer-service focus.

“I think she’s very aware of what the needs are in Island County,” Commissioner Jill Johnson said at the meeting.

On the department’s docket for this year is a project to create the economic development element of the comprehensive plan, which is a document that guides longterm policy decisions. Carpenter previously worked at an economic development consulting firm to help communities solicit corporations to move to the area. She helped create detailed profiles about cities’ demographics and market.

She’s also worked on projects to spur economic growth at the city and county level, she said.

In Island County, she plans to work with the Economic Development Council for Island County and other organizations to help diversify and grow the economy where possible.

She also knows that growth is inevitable and said she’ll work to encourage it within the confines of the state Growth Management Act. As someone who is looking to move to the area, she’s hyper-aware of the lack of affordable housing on the island. However, her position as a newcomer also means she’s cognizant that the rural landscape was a major draw for her to apply for the job.

Many of her formative years were spent camping and fishing in Northern Idaho, she said, where her parents taught her to have “respect for the environment and what if offers.” Carpenter holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and regional planning and an MBA.

She had been looking for a quieter, slower pace of life, and she knows that these characteristics are valued by many of Whidbey’s residents. She’s confident she can work with potential developers to support growth while protecting the county’s natural resources and rural character.

She hopes to cultivate an image of the planning department being more collaborative with the public instead of having an “us-versus-them” perspective, she said.

“I know I have a very different leadership style than prior leaders in this position,” Carpenter said. “I don’t see that as a bad thing.”