Spokane County has hired Jeff McMorris, brother of Spokane Republican U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, as its first community engagement and public policy adviser.
McMorris spent part of his childhood in Eastern Washington. In 1984, when McMorris was 12, his family moved to Kettle Falls, in Stevens County. He has a bachelor’s degree in business from Pensacola Christian College in Florida and a master’s degree in international business from Pepperdine University.
Most recently, McMorris worked for more than three years in President Donald Trump’s administration as the northwest regional administrator for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Before his time at HUD, McMorris spent nearly 13 years working for King County Councilwoman Kathy Lambert, a former Republican state legislator.
McMorris, who started working for the county Aug. 16, will have several responsibilities.
For the community engagement part of his job he’ll be interacting with the public on behalf of the county CEO and county commissioners.
He’ll also analyze the county’s policy options and provide high-level advice to the commissioners and CEO.
McMorris also has a third responsibility, and it’ll be taking up a lot of his time and energy right now. He’s in charge of handling the county’s $101 million allotment of American Rescue Plan dollars and figuring how the money’s needed most. The American Rescue Plan is a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill Congress passed to help the U.S. recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Congress is placing a host of restrictions on how local governments can spend their American Rescue Plan money, so McMorris will have to make sure that the way the county doles out the dollars is legal. The county has to adopt a plan for its $101 million by the end of 2024 and spend the dollars by the end of 2026.
McMorris said that, between his 12 years advising councilwoman Lambert and his three-and-a-half years at HUD, he feels well prepared for his new job.
“It’s a natural fit for my background,” he said.
Spokane County has never had a permanent community engagement and public policy adviser position before, but all three county commissioners said McMorris’ job is not a new position.
County commissioners Josh Kerns, Al French and Mary Kuney all said the job was created for Cindy Wendle.
Wendle was never a permanent county employee. She was paid as a contractor and tasked with helping the county distribute federal pandemic relief through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. The CARES Act is a $2.2 trillion bill Congress passed in March 2020.
“The position was already there and funded through the contract that was there for Cindy,” Kerns said. “The position existed about a year before Jeff even came on board.”
Kerns said that even though Wendle’s initial job was specifically to distribute CARES Act funds, over time she was giving the commissioners more and more public policy advice and doing more community engagement on the commissioners’ behalf.
Wendle’s job was “morphing into more policy as CARES was winding down,” and her position “kept having more and more duties assigned to it,” Kerns said.
“The job description was evolving because we were turning her position into a permanent, full-time position,” French said.
In June, Wendle accepted a job as president of the United Soccer League to Spokane.
“If it wasn’t for USL soccer, Cindy Wendle would be in this position today,” Kerns said.
The county’s job description for the community engagement and public policy adviser role was established on July 22 and revised on July 26. McMorris said he was offered the job in early August.
Kerns and French repeatedly said McMorris’ job is “not a new position.”
French has stated otherwise. On Sept. 20, the county posted a video of a conversation between French and McMorris on its YouTube page.
“This is a new position at the county,” French said in the video.
French said there were no other applicants for McMorris’ position and that the county never published the position on hiring or recruiting websites.
“We don’t have to advertise every job,” French said. “We can do direct hires. We do that all the time.”
It’s unclear who ultimately made the decision to hire McMorris. Kerns said it was Spokane County CEO Scott Simmons’ decision. Kerns declined to say whether the commissioners made the final call, nor would he say whether the commissioners voted to allow Simmons to hire McMorris.
French also declined to say who ultimately made the decision to hire McMorris. He said the county CEO makes hiring and firing decisions. McMorris reports directly to Simmons.
The decision to hire McMorris was made in executive session, French said. He said he wouldn’t share information about discussions held in that executive session.
“I think I can say that the decision to move forward with Jeff was unanimously supported by all four of us,” French said, referring to the three commissioners and Simmons.
Simmons could not be reached for comment in time for this story.
According to the job description on the county website, the community engagement and public policy adviser position comes with a salary in the $78,000 to $108,000 range.
Kerns and French said they didn’t know McMorris’ exact salary off the tops of their heads, but they believed he is starting out in the $90,000 range. The county said The Spokesman-Review would need to file a public records request to get McMorris’ precise salary.
The county commissioners all said McMorris’ hiring had nothing to do with his being Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ brother.
Kerns said McMorris has impressed him in his first two months at the county and brings “a heck of a lot of experience.”
“He’s an asset to the county, regardless of who his family is,” Kerns said. “His last name could be Smith or Jones; he does a great job for the county.”
French said McMorris’ relationship with McMorris Rodgers did not influence the decision to hire him.
“What does that matter?” French said. “Should somebody be disqualified because they happen to be related to someone else? Seriously? Is that the criteria we should use before we hire and fire somebody?”
Kuney said she’s excited to have McMorris on board. He’s a great person, smart and qualified, she said. She also emphasized that his past experience makes him a major asset as the county works to distribute American Rescue Plan dollars.
“I know the elephant in the room is that he’s Cathy’s brother,” Kuney said. “That has absolutely nothing to do with it.”
McMorris said it isn’t fair for people to question his hiring.
“I don’t trade on my name,” he said. “My résumé I think stands for itself, and I’m very qualified for this position.”
McMorris reiterated that his experience working in King County and at HUD makes him a perfect fit for his role at the county.
“I don’t for a minute believe I was offered this job because my sister is a member of Congress,” he said. “I’m a unique individual and I think if my résumé wasn’t as strong as it was, then yes, people would have a reason to say, ‘Oh, this is political favoritism.’ I honestly believe that has nothing to do with this.”