February 16, 2007 in City

Assessor fills new job with top aide’s son

By The Spokesman-Review

A week after Spokane County Assessor Ralph Baker proposed selling ads on his county Web site to help make up for budget cuts, he created a new managerial position in his office and hired the son of his chief deputy to fill it.

Baker hired Adam Best, 23, as the county’s property data manager this week without checking with the county’s human resources department to ensure he met minimum requirements. Best was given a $38,471 salary – three steps above the starting rate for the position – without first seeking approval from human resources.

Cathy Malzahn, the human resources director, said both actions were done “outside our practice and our process.”

Adam Best is the son of the No. 2 person in the assessor’s office, Kevin Best.

The hire is eroding the already low employee morale in the assessor’s office, said Tavis Schmidt, a geographic information system technician in the assessor’s office.

“People are blown away,” said Schmidt, who said he was willing to speak because he is taking a new job next week. “They can’t believe it.”

Attempts to reach Baker and Kevin Best were unsuccessful Thursday.

Other county leaders also are criticizing the hire. County Commissioner Todd Mielke said it sends a bad message to employees and the public.

“I would leave it to readers to consider whether a 23-year-old would have significant experience to be able to jump steps in the pay scale,” Mielke said.

The county has a policy against hiring “relatives or spouses of current Spokane County employees” in cases where “one relative or spouse would have the authority or practical power to supervise, appoint, remove or discipline the other” and in other circumstances.

But Mielke said the rule, created by county commissioners, cannot apply to employees of other elected officials.

The job description for Adam Best’s position says he will report directly to the assessor. Kevin Best’s job description says he performs the assessor’s duties when Baker is absent.

Thirteen people applied for the position after it was advertised. Department leaders and elected officials normally have the human resources department screen the application of the top candidate to make sure the hire is qualified.

Malzahn said she received notice from Baker on Wednesday that he planned to hire Best, but that Baker did not return Best’s application for her review, despite her repeated attempts to contact him, until Thursday. Baker had already hired Adam Best, and he was already at work by the time Malzahn received his application.

Nepotism was a top issue in last year’s county commissioner election between incumbent Phil Harris and Bonnie Mager. Three of Harris’ sons had been hired by the county since he was first elected. Harris lost the race by a narrow margin.

Mielke, who has been a past critic of Baker, noted that Harris’ sons were at least approved by the human resources department for meeting minimum standards before they were hired.

“Even the perception of nepotism stirs up concern not only from the employees, but as we know through the Harris situation, the public as well,” said Gordon Smith Jr., the staff representative of the courthouse workers union.

Adam Best started work on the fourth level of pay possible for the job. If he had been given the entry-level rate, he would have earned $33,118 – $5,353 less than he is making. Best will be eligible for the fifth step out of seven in six months.

Malzahn said if Baker had followed the usual county process, she would have reviewed Adam Best’s experience level and other factors to determine if he deserved the pay bumps.

The position is a non-union job. Smith noted that the highest leap a new courthouse union employee could make above entry-level pay is two steps.

The courthouse union is considering filing an unfair labor practice complaint on the hire because some of Adam Best’s new duties appear to now be handled by union workers, Smith said.

The job description for the new position says Adam Best will oversee statistics and trends, be a liaison to the real estate community, “prepare confidential reports,” manage record storage, and perform several other duties.

Schmidt, the assessor’s employee, said he wonders what kind of confidential reports will be written in an office that oversees property values and tax rates.

“What could there possibly be that’s confidential?” Schmidt said. “Maybe there’s something I don’t know about.”

The specifications for the job say the minimum requirement was a bachelor’s degree and two years of related experience. They also said a real estate agent was preferred.

According to the state licensing department Web site, Adam Best became a licensed agent in 2005. His other qualifications were unclear Thursday night.

Last week, Baker said he was considering selling ads on his popular property data Web site, in part because county commissioners trimmed his budget by about $79,000.

Schmidt said some workers are frustrated that Baker created a management position at a time when employees have been asked to pick up the slack for positions Baker has left unfilled.

County CEO Marshall Farnell said county commissioners likely don’t have the power to stop the hire because they only control the number of employees in Baker’s office and his budget. What Baker does with his budget and his employee slots are up to him as an elected employee, Farnell said.

Baker won tight re-election bids last year in the GOP primary and general election.

During the campaign, Adam Best wrote a letter to the editor supporting Baker’s re-election bid that was published by The Spokesman-Review in August.

In the letter, Best wrote: “Ralph’s proactive style of leadership coupled with a strong binary combination of integrity and eagerness to communicate is unparalleled in today’s political arena.”

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