County's new deputy executive ready for a challenge
It will be up to Gary Haakenson to solve many of county's woes
Mark Mulligan / The Herald
Gary Haakenson, who has left his position as mayor of Edmonds, visits with friends at a farewell reception Thursday afternoon at the Edmonds Center for the Arts. Haakenson will begin his new job as Snohomish County's deputy executive next week.
Mark Mulligan / The Herald
Outgoing Edmonds Mayor Gary Haakenson and his wife, Dolly, laugh at a street sign adorned with their name, a gift presented by Noel Miller, public works director for the city of Edmonds, at a farewell reception Thursday.
They've given the former Edmonds mayor their take on everything from a looming $19 million budget shortfall to political fence-mending.
So far, Haakenson said he feels he's had a warm welcome at the county. Workers he's never met stop him in the elevator to wish him well. At the same time, he's aware that plenty of obstacles await and that clearing them won't be easy.
“I'm up to the challenge and looking forward to it,” he said during a recent interview in a tidy space on the third floor of Edmonds City Hall that served as his office. “The reception from the folks up there has just been overwhelming. I've felt like I'm right at home already.”
Friends and colleagues gave Haakenson a sendoff Thursday at the Edmonds Center for the Arts. His last official day as mayor was Friday. After the holiday weekend, he's scheduled to walk into his new role as County Executive Aaron Reardon's deputy. Haakenson said he's closing the curtain on his political career and that he does not intend to seek elective office again.
The potential to work for Snohomish County opened up after former Deputy Executive Mark Soine announced his resignation in late April. Soine took blame earlier in the year for poor oversight of workplace harassment complaints. An independent audit also was critical of the county's computer services that Soine managed.
When Haakenson takes over, he'll be tasked with trying to shore up county finances and repairing frayed relationships among political leaders. He will help make decisions about hiring for important jobs, including the county's next planning boss. More layoffs and cuts to public services almost certainly lie ahead.
County Auditor Carolyn Weikel said the incoming deputy executive likely will have a busy job. He'll need to develop goodwill with elected officials, while at the same time managing the executive's departments effectively and transparently. An open style of communication is important, in her view.
“I am cautiously optimistic that this transition will go smoothly,” Weikel said. “He brings a strong skill set to the position.”
While Haakenson's time in Edmonds gives him experience with issues that are relevant to the county, Weikel said those same issues might look different from the county's standpoint as annexations force it to cede land, people and revenue to cities and towns.
A trim, tanned 62-year-old, Haakenson has been in public life since 1996. That's when he was appointed to an open Edmonds City Council seat. He was later elected to the City Council and then to the mayor's office, where he has served since 2000. There are no term limits in Edmonds, but Haakenson said he wanted to move on.
Before seeking public office, Haakenson founded his own clothing-store company, Above the Belt, which later became Zumiez, the national young people's clothing chain. He left his active role in the company in 1993 and sold all his shares when it went public in 2005. He also ran sports-card shops in downtown Edmonds, in Perrinville and on Highway 99.
The current members of the County Council have had public disagreements with Reardon, but all say they have high hopes for Haakenson.
“He'll do just fine,” Councilman John Koster said, “if they give him the latitude to do the job and give him what he needs to do the job.”
Councilman Brian Sullivan, a former Mukilteo mayor, said he has known Haakenson about 30 years. Sullivan was confident Haakenson wouldn't have accepted the county job unless he'd been promised the freedom to do what was necessary.
For his part, Haakenson said, “My discussions with the executive would lead me to believe that he wants me to succeed because if I succeed, he succeeds.”
In his new job, Haakenson will be filling a top post in a Democratic administration. When it comes to his own party affiliation, Haakenson explains that it's changed over the years.
Early in life he looked up to President John F. Kennedy and shared his strong Democratic ideals. He said running his own business made him more Republican.
“I'll vote for a D and I'll vote for an R and then I'll vote for somebody who's independent,” he said. “If you ask me today, I probably couldn't tell you which one I am.”
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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