County executive-elect Somers getting his team ready for office

EVERETT — Dave Somers has started assembling a team for when he takes office as Snohomish County executive, but some of the biggest decisions remain.

The executive-elect has informed three county department leaders they won’t be staying on next year. They are: planning director Clay White, emergency management director John Pennington and information services director Gage Andrews.

Somers will mull those vacancies as he also rounds out management and advisory positions in his administration-to-be. He likened it to a new head coach taking over a football program.

“In those three areas, I just felt there needed to be a change. They’re all competent and have done positive things for Snohomish County,” Somers said.

“The best analogy I can put on it is that when a new coach comes in, they bring in new coaches who fit the team.”

Somers, a four-term county councilman from the Monroe area, beat incumbent Executive John Lovick in the Nov. 3 election.

The executive is the top elected official for Washington’s third-largest county, responsible for an overall workforce of 2,800 and an annual operating budget of about $230 million. Departments directly under the executive’s authority include public works, parks and Paine Field, as well as planning, emergency management and information services.

Turnover is common when a new leader takes over in government.

Lovick kept managers mostly in place when he was appointed to replace the scandal-ridden Aaron Reardon in 2013. Some of Reardon’s staff left the executive’s office, but landed jobs elsewhere in the county.

The three department heads that Somers is letting go all were Reardon appointees.

“It’s not a statement that they did anything wrong or weren’t performing well,” Somers said. “These are very hard decisions and I don’t like affecting peoples’ lives.”

The new executive acknowledged White’s popularity among Planning and Development Services staff since assuming leadership of the department in 2010.

“It has been an amazing (five-plus) years and I feel so fortunate and blessed to have been given the opportunity to serve in this position,” White wrote in a Dec. 7 email to staff.

When White took over, the planning department was still reeling from layoffs during the recession and the ouster of the former director, Craig Ladiser, who pleaded guilty to a drunken, sexually motivated assault of a woman at a building-industry golf tournament.

Pennington was named the county’s emergency director in 2006. Before that, he was a four-term Republican member of the state House who had served with Reardon in the Legislature. He was a George W. Bush administration appointee in 2001 to serve as director of FEMA Region 10, overseeing disaster readiness and response in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Alaska.

Andrews came on to lead the county’s tech department in 2011 after working in information technology for the city of Tucson, Arizona. He was tasked with streamlining customer service and other issues, but Auditor Carolyn Weikel identified a host of shortcomings in the department while it was under her oversight in 2013 and 2014.

Andrews also had a dual role as the county’s public records officer.

Somers said he’s giving deep thought to his top appointment, the post of deputy executive.

“It’s extremely important to get that right,” he said. “I’m very comfortable taking the time I need until I get the right person.”

He need look no further than the past two county executives to appreciate what’s at stake.

Under Lovick, Deputy Executive Mark Ericks’ heavy-handed style created rifts with a majority of the County Council. Ericks had a lead role in the county’s courthouse-replacement project, a $162 million debacle that imploded over the summer as crews prepared to break ground. He resigned in September.

One Reardon deputy executive, Mark Soine, resigned in 2010 after a consultant found a pattern of sloppy investigations into workplace harassment complaints. Soine’s secretive conduct fueled distrust of the executive’s office. The atmosphere improved tremendously after Reardon called on then-Edmonds Mayor Gary Haakenson to serve as his second-in-command. Haakenson not only understood how to manage, but also cultivated good working relationships among county leaders.

As he moves forward, Somers said he has sought advice from former County Executive Bob Drewel.

Drewel, the executive from 1991 to 2003, now serves as a senior adviser to the president at Washington State University North Puget Sound Everett. During his tenure as executive he helped steer an expansion of commercial airline flights to Sea-Tac Airport instead of Snohomish County, led Sound Transit through a successful ballot measure after an earlier attempt failed, and oversaw a major overhaul of the county campus in downtown Everett. He also picked seasoned government professionals to serve as his deputy executives: Joni Earl and Gary Weikel.

Drewel said he’s known Somers for at least 15 years and has been happy to offer guidance.

To ensure continuity over the holidays, Somers said he plans to be sworn in during the week leading up to Christmas. A public ceremony is tentatively scheduled at the county campus along with other newly elected leaders on the morning of Jan. 4.

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

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