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Published: Tuesday, June 21, 2011, 12:01 a.m.

Questions surround county economic director’s position

Two members of the County Council say the director's job should be cut, after details emerged about plans for a water bottling plant in Everett.

EVERETT -- The position of Snohomish County economic development director should be eliminated, two members of the County Council said Monday.
The $106,000-per-year position in County Executive Aaron Reardon's office duplicates efforts to bring jobs to the county that an outside organization already performs better, County Councilmen Brian Sullivan and Dave Somers said.
"Do we need an economic development director?" Sullivan said. "I'm just questioning whether we should be the head cheerleaders of economic development when we know the Economic Development Council is in place."
The councilmen were reacting to details about a water-bottling plant that Reardon highlighted in his February State of the County speech. The plant was supposed break ground on Port of Everett property by mid-2011 and create more than 50 jobs.
To date, the company has yet to select any land or secure any permits for the operation. Reardon's economic development director, Donna Ambrose, left her six-figure job in March to form a business with one of the plant's main advocates.
Japan's earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster hurt an overseas business partner that the people behind the bottling plant were counting on; that's what's responsible for delaying the project by six months or more, according to Reardon and a representative from the company.
The county has a $100,000 contract this year with the Economic Development Council of Snohomish County. That organization has since merged with the chambers of commerce for Everett and south county to form a group called Economic Alliance Snohomish County.
Rather than paying a county employee to perform similar work, Sullivan said the county should instead focus on "normal governmental functions" to spur economic growth, such as streamlining permits, seeking grants and coordinating with those who work in key segments of the economy, such as farmers.
Not all of his colleagues agree with getting rid of the director's job, though.
County Councilman John Koster said he sees no problem with Reardon employing an economic development director -- so long as the work represents the entire county. Koster believes the Economic Alliance is too centered on southwest Snohomish County at the expense of his north county district, which includes Marysville, Arlington and other more rural communities.
There are, however, problems with how Reardon's economic development strategy performed, he said.
With or without Japan's disaster, Koster believes Reardon rushed to make news of the plant public. Evergreen Bottling has, to date, not selected a piece of land or sought any permits. It didn't even register with the state until after Reardon's announcement that the company was coming.
From listening to the speech, "you would believe that it was a done deal," Koster said. "He didn't have all of his ducks in a row before he made that announcement."
Somers, the County Council chairman, like Sullivan believes economic development would be best handled by the Economic Alliance. Revelations about Ambrose's involvement in the bottling plant illustrate some of the reasons why, he said. County emails show Ambrose offering detailed business suggestions to the bottling company while she was on the county payroll.
Ambrose left her county job in March to start a consulting business with Nancy Yi, a deal-maker in the bottling plant and a potential investor. One of Yi's Bellevue companies, Sea2O, which makes energy drinks, is now seeking bankruptcy protection.
"We should be limited to promoting the county, but not giving advice to people," Somers said. "There's a line that needs to be drawn there."
Reardon, a Democrat from Everett, is running for his third term this fall. His Republican challenger, state Rep. Mike Hope, R-Lake Stevens, already has seized on the bottling-plant episode as campaign fodder.
Hope said Ambrose's emails raise ethical questions that deserve an investigation. He also doubted whether Ambrose, a former Reardon spokeswoman, had the type of economic and business background that qualified her for the position.
"I need to make sure that person is clearly trustworthy," he said. "I'm depending on this person to help foster the business environment to help create jobs."
Gary Haakenson, Reardon's top deputy, said Monday he checked with county attorneys and confirmed there was no conflict of interest on Ambrose's part.
The permitting and real estate work for the bottling project would have been handled by the city of Everett and the Port of Everett, so the county would not have gained directly. Ambrose, he added, gave notice she was leaving the county before she formed the business with Yi. Her last day at work came after the company was formed, however.
Reardon's sole interest in the bottling plant project was economic development, Haakenson said.
"We never had anything to gain with trying to bring them to the city of Everett or to the port," he said, "just the creation of jobs in the county itself."
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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