The man whose grasp of Spokane County’s purse strings predates Expo ’74 will retire this year, prompting a nationwide search for a replacement that likely will include a sitting county commissioner.
Marshall Farnell, 72, was named the county’s budget director in 1973 after a brief stint as the regional law and justice coordinator. The Miami native has worked in some capacity overseeing county coffers for four decades, amassing titles like county administrator, administrative director and his current title, chief executive officer, a position he’s held since 2004.
During that time, Spokane County’s population has grown by nearly 60 percent. A new jail and airport terminal were built, sewer lines were extended to Spokane Valley and multiple administrations shuffled through the Spokane County Courthouse.
“It’s just time to move on,” Farnell said Tuesday. “It’s time for the organization, and it’s time for me.”
The county announced Farnell’s retirement in an internal memo sent to employees Tuesday. His position was advertised in this weekend’s edition of The Spokesman-Review, which had prompted rumblings about his departure, said County Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn.
The first-term commissioner said Farnell’s historical knowledge will be missed.
“That’s the hard part,” O’Quinn said. “That you can’t replace.”
Commissioner Al French agreed.
“The institutional wisdom of the county walks out the door with him,” French said. “He has forgotten more than any of us will ever know.”
Sitting commissioners voted Tuesday to move forward with a selection committee to name Farnell’s replacement. Commissioner Todd Mielke recused himself from the vote, as he has with every step of the process so far.
Mielke said Tuesday he’s exploring his options, though several people have approached him about replacing Farnell.
“I love my position,” said Mielke, who has served on the Board of County Commissioners since 2004. “I want to make sure this would allow me to do it on a different avenue.”
Farnell, who serves with the consent of the board, enjoyed such a long tenure in office because of his ability to work well with elected officials, said former Spokane County Commissioner John Roskelley.
“He had to walk a tightrope; it was a balancing act,” Roskelley said Tuesday. “He did an incredible job walking that tightrope.”
The longtime executive’s time in office was not without its setbacks, however. Amid a flurry of sexual harassment lawsuits against department heads and a county commissioner, as well as the threat of a strike by jail employees, Farnell was reassigned in January 1995 at the recommendation of a consultant’s report.
Skip Chilberg, a county commissioner at the time of Farnell’s reassignment, said the decision to change Farnell’s title had to do with the demands of his job. At the time, Farnell was in charge of the budget, operations and projects outlined by the commission. Today, the county employs a chief operations officer and a budget director in addition to Farnell.
“We felt, as a commission, that was more responsibility than one person should have,” Chilberg said. Farnell was named administrative director in 1995, a position he held until 2004, when chief executive officer Francine Boxer resigned after multiple arrests on charges of driving under the influence of alcohol.
Farnell said one of the proudest achievements of his time with the county was bringing sewer lines to Spokane Valley, a decision he said county commissioners took a lot of political heat for in the 1980s.
“If we hadn’t have put in the sewer at the time in the unincorporated areas – particularly the Valley area – they probably would have shut us down,” Farnell said. “We probably wouldn’t have been able to have any development whatsoever.”
Farnell will remain with the county through the spring, as a seven-member selection committee screens applicants for the job. The position pays a salary of a little more than $160,000 annually, and applicants must have a bachelor’s degree and at least 10 years of executive experience. Farnell also will stay on during what he called the “transition process,” though he said it won’t be difficult for him to walk away from his employer for more than four decades.
“I plan to stay busy, and do other things,” Farnell said. “I’m feeling really good about it.”
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