Gary Haakenson, a steady deputy county exec, to retire

EVERETT — He brought a measure of calm during the most turbulent period in modern Snohomish County politics.

Later, Gary Haakenson would help smooth the transition as appointed County Executive John Lovick took over after a scandal-ridden predecessor, Aaron Reardon, resigned.

Now the top county administrator and former Edmonds mayor is preparing to retire after 18 years of public service. And, as a county press release about his announcement said, “he means it this time.” He’s planning to step down Oct. 8.

“Gary Haakenson is regarded as one of Snohomish County’s most dedicated public servants,” Lovick said. “No matter what office he has held, nor the challenges he has encountered, he has handled it all with integrity and unmatched energy.”

Haakenson, 67, already had achieved success in the world of retail business when he entered politics.

He co-founded the clothing-store company Above the Belt, which later became Zumiez. He left his active role in the Lynnwood-based company more than two decades ago and later sold his shares.

His political career began on the Edmonds City Council in 1996. He was elected mayor in 1999 and led the city for more than a decade until he got a call from the county.

Reardon hired Haakenson in 2010 to help shore up an administration reeling from a series of personnel fiascoes and a poisonous relationship with most of the county’s other elected leaders. The administration’s problems at the time included the former county planning director’s drunken sexual assault of a female lobbyist during a building-industry golf tournament and revelations about shoddy investigations into personnel complaints from county employees.

Haakenson, a business-oriented Republican, appeared an unusual choice for Democrat Reardon.

“When Aaron hired me to be deputy executive, he took a lot of heat from a lot of old Everett folks and Democratic Party folks,” Haakenson said. “Number one, because I was perceived to be a Republican, and, number two, because I was from south county.”

When Haakenson arrived, he focused on fixing relationships with other county leaders.

“I said, ‘I’m here to help you,’” Haakenson recalled Thursday. “It sets a bad image for county government when everybody is squabbling with each other all of the time.”

It worked — for a while.

By late 2011, high drama again had enveloped Reardon and his administration. There was a sex scandal over Reardon’s affair with county social worker and a Washington State Patrol criminal investigation into whether the married executive had used public money to take her on county business trips. Evidence also surfaced that Reardon had mixed county business with his re-election activities.

“While the circus atmosphere was going on, the county employees kept their nose to the grindstone,” Haakenson said. “I’m really proud of that.”

Though Reardon won re-election and avoided criminal charges in the state investigation, things did not return to normal.

A junior aide in Reardon’s office, Kevin Hulten, stepped up attacks on his boss’ political rivals, using anonymous social media sites, multiple public records requests and threats of lawsuits. The activity was made to appear to come from somebody named “Edmond Thomas,” representing a company named after a famous street in France.

Haakenson, who had attempted to discipline Hulten, was one of nearly 20 county employees targeted.

“I don’t even know what word to use to describe it,” Haakenson said. “That time frame was indeed very strange.”

Reardon announced his resignation in early 2013, after The Herald unmasked Hulten for his activities. Another criminal investigation followed, during which Hulten used a data-wiping program to erase information on a county-owned laptop. Hulten pleaded guilty this summer to evidence tampering, a gross misdemeanor.

Haakenson was the acting county executive for one weekend following Reardon’s resignation at the end of May 2013. County Democrats picked Lovick, then sheriff, to take Reardon’s place.

“Honestly, I thought that when the county switched executives that I’d be swept out the door,” Haakenson said.

Instead, the new Democratic administration asked the Republican to stay on.

Haakenson said his biggest challenge came within hours of Lovick taking office.

Two days earlier, 15-year-old Molly Conley was shot in an apparently random drive-by shooting in Lake Stevens while celebrating her birthday with friends.

On that Monday, her distraught father showed up at the Medical Examiner’s Office.

“The hardest thing I ever had to do is sit down with a father … after he lost his daughter to a drive-by shooting and explain to him why he couldn’t see her body,” he said.

At first, Haakenson’s tenure was supposed to be transitional, perhaps lasting six months. By the end of 2013, Deputy Executive Mark Ericks was asking him to stay for another year. They agreed to take it quarter by quarter, with Haakenson working about three days a week, sometimes more if needed.

Before three months were up, Snohomish County suffered its worst natural disaster in recorded history. The Oso mudslide wiped out a rural neighborhood and buried a stretch of Highway 530, taking 43 lives.

Lovick asked Haakenson to lead recovery efforts in the slide zone. In that role, he’s coordinated debris removal and economic initiatives. He helped assemble a grant application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to buy out properties in the slide zone.

Early discussions have begun about how best to honor the dead.

“We’ve set the wheels in motion for some kind of memorial out there,” Haakenson said. “That’s going to take some time.”

With the six-month mark approaching since the deadly mudslide, Haakenson said he’s confident that others, including emergency manager Heather Kelly, are well-equipped to carry on the work.

Haakenson intends to keep serving on three public safety boards in the community. He has no desire to move away from Edmonds.

As he prepares to leave, he’s reluctant to criticize Reardon. He keeps in occasional contact with the former executive, who left the Everett area and appears to be living in southern California. They don’t talk about politics.

“I’d like to thank Aaron for giving me the opportunity to be deputy executive,” Haakenson said. “And I’d like to thank John Lovick and Mark Ericks for having faith in my ability to keep me on at the county.”

Most of all, he said, he’s proud of the county workforce who persevered through political squabbles, scandals and tragedy.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, Twitter: @NWhaglund.

The public is invited to celebrate Snohomish County executive director Gary Haakenson’s public service at a retirement party planned from 1 to 3:30 p.m. Sept. 23. The location is the public hearing room on the first floor of the county’s Robert J. Drewel Building, 3000 Rockefeller Ave., Everett.

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