County Council increases scrutiny on Reardon

EVERETT — Questions about Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon’s management of key departments has caused the County Council to depart from its traditional role of crafting legislation.

Now, they’re looking over the shoulder of the county’s chief administrator and starting to check up on his work.

A $50,000 performance audit underway will review how well one department handles the county’s computer and printing needs. The council also is keeping tabs on a $12,000 review of harassment and discrimination complaints that Reardon requested.

“I think the actions have all been responses to concerns that we felt,” Council Chairman Dave Gossett said.

The council also remains troubled, as in years past, by what it maintains is a lack of communication between Reardon and other elected officials.

“When there’s an air of secrecy, it makes for lack of trust and inefficiencies,” Councilman Brian Sullivan said. Elected leaders “don’t have to be friends, but they have to meet, communicate and solve problems.”

Ask Reardon, and he doesn’t view any of the recent moves by the council as challenging his authority or weakening it.

He ordered the harassment complaint review himself, and says he supports the technology department audit.

He’s just glad that councilmen suggested, in a note attached to the 2010 budget, that it is time to look at rearranging county government.

That’s something Reardon said he’s been pushing for since won his first term in 2003.

“I’ve advocated for six years for efficiencies at the county,” Reardon said. “A restructuring and a makeover of this county is needed, and it will be a top issue going forward. We need to make sure we deal with that in an adultlike manner that meets the needs of the citizens of this county.”

Some on the council see their oversight as necessary to help safeguard the county against lawsuits.

Reforming the way the county handles workplace complaints, for example, or how it stores public records may be key to protecting taxpayers, Councilman John Koster said.

“You have a fiduciary responsibility to make sure the county doesn’t get into a position where it’s being litigated against,” Koster said. “If there are concerns that things aren’t efficient as they should be, maybe the council should involve itself.”

At least two pending lawsuits now allege the county mishandled complaints of sexual harassment that female jail employees said they were subjected to by male supervisors.

The county also is facing a $500,000 claim for damages from the planning department’s former human-resources manager.

Debbie McPherson said she and others in the office were subject to sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination. McPherson said she also filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Her sexual-harassment claims, and other complaints from planning department employees, surfaced before the department’s former director, Craig Ladiser, was fired in August for drunkenly exposing his genitals to a woman during a building-industry golf tournament.

Changes coming?

Audit findings might lead the County Council to move the $21.6 million department of information services away from Reardon’s control.

One suggestion is to move it into the Auditor’s Office, which is responsible for maintaining much of the county’s legal paperwork, including property deeds, election results and marriage certificates.

Reardon said no elected officials told him of any problems with information services, and he only learned of this proposal when it came up during the budget process last fall.

Treasurer Kirke Sievers, a former county councilman, said he had long been frustrated with information services. Now, the specter of moving the department away from Reardon seems to have gotten somebody’s attention.

“It sure seems strange that now that we have the auditor involved, they’re very responsive to our needs,” Sievers said.

Sullivan, who suggested the move, said having computer systems under the auditor, a nonpartisan elected official, was preferable to having it under a Democrat or Republican. The auditor is responsible for overseeing elections.

Other reasons for rearranging how county government is managed may be purely economic.

Reshuffling departments and responsibilities will affect how Snohomish County manages a 2,700-member work force and a current overall annual budget of $767 million. It also helps guide the county toward a smaller future as annexations move revenues and responsibilities to cities.

Shrinking revenues were on County Councilman Mike Cooper’s mind when he and his colleagues, in a note on the 2010 budget, asked for all county departments to convene a work group to consider restructuring.

“It was a good time to take a fresh look given that we were going to have to be a smaller, leaner government,” Cooper said. “The big issue for me was not taking things away from the executive, but a recognition that we need to be a leaner, meaner government because annexations are taking things away from county government.”

Similar changes are taking place throughout Washington.

“It’s a really common trend right now to try to squeeze and find efficiencies,” said Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington State Association of Counties. “The easy ones have been done years ago, so now we’re starting to deal with some of the more complex ones.”

Reardon’s office has suggested a move of parks maintenance to the county facilities department.

Sullivan has suggested moving Snohomish County’s diminished planning department, which has shrunk to less than a third of its former building-boom size. He’d place it under the public works department.

A huge shift in the county took place a year ago, when the jail moved to Sheriff John Lovick’s control from under Reardon’s office.

Reardon said he not only supported the change, which came up during the county charter review in 2006, but pushed it for years before the council acted.

Under Lovick’s leadership, jail employees and administrators report better labor relations, less overtime and a general morale boost.

“We don’t care about turf battles,” executive director Brian Parry wrote in an e-mailed response to questions. “We care about providing services in the most efficient, effective manner possible. If changes are researched and can be shown to save taxpayer dollars, we are all for them — but failing to analyze changes and gambling with services and tax dollars is not an option.”

Political tension

Tension has frequently existed between Reardon, a Democrat, and previous configurations of the County Council during his six years in office.

Gary Nelson, a Republican councilman who retired in 2007 after serving three terms, blamed strained relationships on how Reardon’s office was managed.

“It certainly goes well beyond the political differences,” Nelson said. “It goes right to the core of directives and decision-making.”

Still, Nelson cautioned against moving departments away from the county executive for those reasons alone.

“Those studies that are done need to be taken seriously by the County Council,” he said. “Not only with regard to how efficient (county departments) might be, but also with regard to the long-term services.”

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

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