Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon tested by county turmoil

  • Mon May 3rd, 2010 10:54am
  • News

By Noah Haglund Herald Writer

EVERETT — Aaron Reardon propelled himself through Washington’s political ranks into the Snohomish County executive’s office at the age of 32 by promising efficient, transparent government that broke from the old ways of doing business.

Though the young, rising Democrat weathered plenty of disputes with Republican lawmakers and members of his own party, he may never have faced a true political crisis — until the past year.

Today, all eyes are on the now 39-year-old to see whom he chooses to replace his top administrative officer, deputy executive Mark Soine, who announced his resignation early last week. Reardon promised to name a successor before Soine’s scheduled exit on June 3.

Reardon said the shake-up has taught him the importance of making sure his top managers keep him informed.

“I am not to be kept out of the loop on anything,” he said.

While Reardon listed numerous ground-level changes that are taking place in the departments he oversees, he suggested no overhaul of how county government is being run. Efforts to mend strained relations with other elected officials have already moved Reardon’s administration down the path it needs to take, he said.

“I’m going to continue on in the same vein that we started on at the beginning of the year,” Reardon said.

Soine was the latest domino to topple after a series of management slipups. First, there was planning director Craig Ladiser, fired last summer after a female lobbyist accused him of indecent exposure and sexually motivated assault during a building-industry golf tournament.

Then came revelations about alleged sexual harassment and other misbehavior by managers in the planning department. That prompted Reardon to request a $12,000 outside review that found serious record-keeping problems at the office that handles county workers’ complaints. Another $50,000 audit of the county’s computer department noted unusually poor communication between Reardon’s office and other branches of county government.

Soine had a role in supervising the departments criticized by the outside consultants.

Reardon said Tuesday that concerns about the county’s complaint investigations and computer systems were reported to Soine and other top managers, but didn’t reach him.

“My confidence in the information I was receiving internally was shaken (after the audits),” he said.

Reardon said last week that he sat his top staff down and underscored his expectations.

“They are not to withhold anything from me,” he said. “There is no gray area.”

Communication problems have long dogged the executive’s office under Reardon.

In her 2006 resignation letter, Susan Neely, an executive director early in Reardon’s tenure, said lack of communication contributed to making the executive’s office a hostile workplace.

In the letter, Neely said policy questions e-mailed to Reardon and Soine were rarely acknowledged or went unanswered. She complained of being excluded from discussions and said she was treated with disrespect.

Neely is a highly regarded analyst, particularly on criminal-justice matters, which consume more than 70 percent of the county’s roughly $200 million operating budget. The day she resigned from Reardon’s crew, Neely was snapped up by King County as a council budget analyst.

She now works for the Snohomish County Council and declined to comment for this story.

Senior staffers

With Soine leaving, Reardon’s closest directors include:

  • Executive director Peter Camp, 53, a Columbia University-trained lawyer who previously worked as Everett’s deputy city attorney. He earns $146,000 annually, the upper end of his salary range.

  • Executive director Brian Parry, 31, Reardon’s former legislative aide, campaign manager and chief of staff. Parry joined Reardon’s office in 2005 after a lobbying job with the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish County. He had spent little, if any, time supervising employees before that, but was put in charge of overseeing directors of multimillion-dollar departments.

    That included the planning department under Ladiser. He earns $106,000 annually, near the lower end of the salary range for his position.

  • Finance director Roger Neumaier, 60, whom Reardon appointed soon after being elected to his first term as county executive in 2003. An experienced certified public accountant, Neumaier previously held other high-level finance positions in Snohomish County and state government. He earns $146,000 annually, the upper end of his salary range.

    Soine, 59, earns $161,000 annually. That’s $14,000 more than Reardon. It also is the top pay authorized for the deputy executive position.

    Soine was light on experience managing people before Reardon hired him in 2005. He had worked as Everett’s city attorney and served on the Everett City Council.

    The choice of Soine’s successor has important implications for county government and for Reardon’s political future. He is preparing for a possible campaign for a third term. State campaign finance records show Reardon in March collected $17,100 for the 2011 executive’s race. He also often is mentioned as a possible candidate for statewide or federal offices.

    Snohomish County Democratic Party Chairman Bill Phillips said Soine’s resignation suggests Reardon is “putting politics aside and doing what he needs to do.”

    “Mark and he are friends,” Phillips said. “They’ve known each other a very long time. Mark’s resignation, to me, shows me that Aaron is taking steps to address problems in his own office.”

    In 2007, Reardon handily beat Republican challenger Jack Turk, a political neophyte and former Microsoft manager. Reardon’s opponent attracted the most attention for performing as a magician under the name Turk the Magic Genie. His business card showed him with a bird puppet named Doodle.

    Snohomish County Republican Party Chairman Jim Kellett said he hadn’t been following news of Soine’s resignation. He also said it’s too early to talk about prospects for the 2011 election.

    “I would certainly disagree with the Democrats’ assertion” that Reardon is putting politics aside, Kellett said. “Aaron is a political animal.”

    One obvious qualification for Soine’s replacement is experience running large public or private enterprises, said Stephen Page, associate professor of the University of Washington’s Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs.

    “The executive has a lot of different responsibilities, many of which are ceremonial and public,” Page said. “The day-to-day operations of the county require somebody who has the chief executive’s ear and can speak with the chief executive’s voice and authority, but who’s dedicated to overseeing and managing the daily performance and the weekly performance of the county itself.”

    The deputy executive should “catalyze and inspire and support” the rest of county government while taking the lead on treating employees fairly and maintaining customer service for taxpayers.

    It’s dangerous to focus too much on the machinery of government and risk losing sight of what people need.

    Otherwise “the trains will run on time, but they won’t actually get to the routes that need to be served,” Page said.

    Other vacancies

    In addition to replacing Soine, Reardon is looking for permanent replacements to lead the planning department and the office that handles worker complaints.

    Reardon won’t say whom he’s eyeing for his next deputy executive. The menu of options includes internal and external candidates. If he goes outside his office, Reardon can opt for a Snohomish County insider, or look farther afield to Seattle, the Eastside or beyond. Competence should be the deciding factor, Page said, though gender could become an important symbolic gesture.

    Whoever gets the nod will have to confront a mess.

    Because of annexations and falling revenues, the planning department has shed more than half its employees during the past two years.

    The new deputy executive will be working with a new planning director. They’ll face a big job.

    A nearly $1 million lawsuit filed recently against Snohomish County alleges that managers in the planning department engaged in behavior that included ranking female employees by looks. A former deputy director allegedly grabbed a female customer at a copy machine and reportedly excused his actions by explaining “I thought it was an employee.”

    Professor of human resources Vandra Huber from the UW’s Michael G. Foster School of Business said competent managers tackle workplace complaints promptly so that it’s clear problems are not being ignored.

    Whistle-blowers often don’t want to sue but feel they have no other choice, she said.

    “Most people just want the problem to stop and that’s where, in my opinion, managers are often stupid,” Huber said. “No action tends to make things escalate.”

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