County auditor wants more time to fix tech department

EVERETT — Snohomish County’s tech workers again have become an unlikely source of intrigue, as political leaders debate who should manage them.

Auditor Carolyn Weikel has overseen the county’s information services for nearly a year, since the County Council wrested the department from the control of then-Executive Aaron Reardon, a move to protect the integrity of public records.

Weikel now says she’d like to have more time to fix the problems she inherited. Rather than ceding control of the department in February 2015, as agreed to last year, she wants to keep it through 2017.

“I accepted the challenge and I was honored by the council’s trust and confidence in me,” Weikel said.

Executive John Lovick, who replaced Reardon in mid-2013, believes tech services belong under his authority.

“I support bringing it back,” he said.

It’s up to the County Council to decide. They’ve scheduled a hearing at 10:30 a.m. Feb. 12.

At the center of their deliberations is a county department that for years was the source of finger-pointing among elected officials, including a highly critical 2010 audit.

Reardon’s messy exit from office also showed the tech department to be, at the very least, an unwitting participant in hiding embarrassing records from public disclosure.

Information services runs the county’s computer systems and other back-office functions. The 2014 budget allotted the department 85 positions and $19.8 million.

The executive is the county’s top administrator, in charge of departments such as public works, planning and human resources.

Historically, Snohomish County’s information services fell under the executive’s management.

In February 2013, the council took the extraordinary step of stripping Reardon’s authority over the department and entrusting it to Weikel. The move came less than a week after The Herald reported on evidence that some on Reardon’s staff were engaging in what appeared to be politically motivated harassment and surveillance of the executive’s rivals.

Given the circumstances, some county leaders viewed the auditor as the next-best fit for authority over the department. The office has responsibility for recording and storing official documents, in addition to overseeing elections, animal control and licensing.

A King County sheriff’s investigation into the activities in Reardon’s office, requested by the County Council last year, is ongoing. Skagit County prosecutors will decide whether to seek criminal charges.

The council’s emergency ordinance came with a sunset date of February 2015.

The day after the council took the action, Reardon announced that he’d step down in the spring.

“Those were crazy days,” said Mark Ericks, Lovick’s deputy executive. “There was all that funny business with the previous administration.”

The conditions under Reardon made the move necessary, Ericks said. They no longer exist, so it’s time to put things back the way they were.

“I can find no reason to extend it to 2017,” he said. “I can find no reason to keep it until 2015, either.”

Gary Haakenson had Ericks’ job under Reardon and continues to work in the executive’s office as a top manager. The council’s move came as a shock to him last year, but he understands why it was necessary.

“Those reasons are no longer valid, and it’s time that DIS goes back under the direction of the executive’s office,” he said.

On Monday, the County Council, in a 3-2 vote, decided to schedule a hearing on Weikel’s proposal.

Council Chairman Dave Somers agreed to move the hearing back a couple of weeks from a proposed date of Jan. 29, after council members Brian Sullivan and Stephanie Wright questioned the need to move so quickly. Sullivan and Wright were against setting the Feb. 12 hearing.

“There needs to be a decision and, unfortunately, we’re the ones who have to make the decision,” Somers said.

Weikel said she wants to work with the tech department to understand the role it plays in serving the entire county.

Historically, the department has had trouble communicating with elected leaders. A 2010 consultant’s review found a widespread perception that tech services were more responsive to the executive’s needs than to other departments. The county set up a multi-departmental panel to work through those concerns and others identified in the audit.

“They have difficulty telling their story, and that’s where I come in,” Weikel said.

There’s also much to be addressed in the department’s handling of public records.

Evidence of serious oversight problems became apparent after the department was removed from Reardon’s control.

A former executive staffer, Kevin Hulten, was able to hide on-the-job campaign work he’d performed for Reardon using county computers. The records went undiscovered for nearly two years because Hulten used services that stored the documents off the county’s computer network.

It was Weikel who tracked down those records after revisiting The Herald’s public record requests. She’s now reviewing county regulations to put safeguards in place.

The county’s information services director, Gage Andrews, has a dual role as the county’s chief records officer. He’d previously denied the newspaper’s public records requests for Hulten documents, ruling they did not exist.

Lovick’s office also provided The Herald with records that previously had been withheld when Reardon was in office. In one document Hulten complained about not being sufficiently rewarded for what he called “black hat jobs” on Reardon’s behalf.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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