Three months after Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke lost his bid to become the next chief executive of the county, the commission is no closer to naming the next person who will oversee an annual budget of roughly $440 million.
Commissioner Al French declined in June to cast the deciding vote that would have named Mielke the successor to long-serving administrator Marshall Farnell. French said last week he still wants to see the county hire a national headhunting firm to attract top-quality candidates. Fellow Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn said she believed that would be a waste of taxpayer money, given the county’s extensive Human Resources Department and the wealth of quality candidates in Spokane.
“I think we’ve avoided the process discussion to this point,” O’Quinn said.
Since being turned down for the Spokane CEO job, Mielke has sent his resume to Franklin County at the request of commissioners there, he said. Franklin County is seeking a replacement administrator after Fred Bowen retired earlier this year. Mielke wasn’t called in for an interview, and Franklin County has hired a recruiting firm to solicit applicants for the job.
French and O’Quinn created the process that produced Mielke as the top candidate for the job this spring. But French said he began to have second thoughts about opting not to hire headhunters as he spoke with other government leaders around the state, who said the best in the field could “pick and choose” which jobs they wanted.
“I had an education in March,” French said.
Mielke questioned French’s change of heart.
“Al was 50 percent of the design team for the last process,” Mielke said, referring to a review committee made up of business and community leaders that evaluated resumes this spring. “He had every opportunity to make (a recruitment firm) part of that process.”
“Consistency has to count for something,” he added.
Farnell said he’s willing to stay on the job until commissioners can name a replacement. Looming large over the disagreement about Farnell’s successor is a proposition that will be before voters this November to enlarge the Spokane County Commission by two members.
Mielke said it’s unlikely the county will wait for the result of the ballot measure, and the potential November 2016 election of two new commissioners, before making a decision on Farnell’s replacement.
“I don’t see that happening,” Mielke said.
The chief executive serves at the pleasure of the commission. French said that requires a level of political savvy that demands a hiring process involving the entire community and attracting younger candidates nationwide.
“I think the voters in Spokane County deserve the best,” French said.
O’Quinn said the county’s process produced high-quality candidates. French started criticizing the process late in the game because he didn’t agree with the outcome, which left Mielke as the top-rated candidate, she said.
“We had a very thorough and robust process,” O’Quinn said. “We ended up with 84 applications from 24 different states.”
By the time Spokane County was ready to make a hiring decision, all but one of those candidates − Mielke − had either accepted a job elsewhere or been ruled out by the hiring committee’s standards. French said that wasn’t fair to the county or to Mielke, and that it would have been difficult to fight the public perception of nepotism in the hiring.
“I received those emails, and I got those phone calls,” French said. He added that the review committee “did a really good job” but that he had hoped for a broader talent pool to select from.
If the county were to hire a headhunting firm, it would not be unprecedented.
Franklin County, whose population is roughly one-sixth the size of Spokane County, hired an Issaquah-based firm earlier this year to conduct its search for a new administrator. The reported cost was $24,500.
Franklin County eventually hired Keith Johnson, a former Idaho state controller who had been employed by software company Oracle as a government liaison. He will earn $130,000 annually there as administrator, according to the Tri-City Herald.
No other candidates for the Franklin County job were publicly identified.
French lauded the Spokane Airport Board’s decision to hire a recruiting firm that brought current CEO Larry Krauter to town in February 2011.
“That’s the caliber of people that I want,” French said.
Mielke said the other possibilities are recruiting another review committee after making an open call for resumes, similar to the process from this spring. But he said he’s heard feedback in the community that people wouldn’t want to serve on that committee, given the noncommital outcome in June.
“I don’t think we have the credibility at the county right now to pursue a new committee,” Mielke said.
That would leave an appointment by a majority of the commission, similar to the process the city of Spokane employs to name a city administrator. O’Quinn said that process would ensure the chief executive works well with a majority of the commission.
“You have to have someone that understands the job and understands the environment they’re working in,” she said.
French said the county government system is different than the one in place at the city, which would make a majority appointment tricky.
“No county I’m aware of has done that,” French said.
A city administrator typically leaves with a departing mayor, whereas the county chief executive remains through administrations, as long as they retain the support of a majority of commissioners.
Farnell earned $162,000 last year, according to county records.
O’Quinn said ideally, Farnell’s replacement would garner the support of all three commissioners.
“I guess we’ll see if we can get there,” she said.
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