Haakenson trading political challenges in move to county executive assistant

EDMONDS — Mayor Gary Haakenson may be leaving a political tornado and stepping into a hurricane.

Edmonds’ top official for nearly a dozen years, and a co-founder of the Zumiez clothing store chain, is scheduled to start a new job July 5 as deputy to Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon.

Haakenson, 62, leaves a city that last year laid off and furloughed employees in response to a budget shortfall, and where his relations are strained with some on the City Council.

He will replace Mark Soine, whom Reardon hired in 2005.

The county also has faced job cuts and Soine’s time as Reardon’s second-in-command was marked by confrontation with other government officials. Today is Soine’s last day on the job. He announced his resignation in April after a series of management foul-ups.

County Council President Dave Gosset commended Reardon’s pick.

“I think Gary’s an excellent choice,” Gosset said. “He’s collaborative. He’s well-respected. He understands government and business. He’s a smart guy.”

County Councilman Mike Cooper, whose third district includes Edmonds, praised the choice.

“I think Aaron Reardon made absolutely the perfect choice for the county,” Cooper said. “It’s a big loss for the people of Edmonds, but it’s a big gain for the people of Snohomish County.”

Haakenson announced his decision during Tuesday’s council meeting.

Haakenson was first elected mayor in 1999 after serving four years on the council. He was re-elected mayor twice.

As mayor, he’s been responsible for a $75 million annual budget and 266 employees.

“People in the city, both employees and citizens, knew I had no intention of running for a fourth term,” Haakenson said Wednesday. “So the next question is ‘What are you going to do when you get done being mayor?’ My answer has always been ‘I don’t know, but something will come along.’”

He said timing was a big reason he accepted Reardon’s job offer. He was offered the job last Friday.

If he’d been offered the job a year from now or last year, “I probably wouldn’t have accepted it,” Haakenson said.

Haakenson is joining Reardon at a time when the county executive and his staff have been the focus of building criticism.

Much of the recent trouble stems from how Reardon’s office handled allegations last summer that the former planning director was drunk at a building industry golf tournament and pressed his bare genitals against a female lobbyist. Craig Ladiser was fired and is now charged with indecent exposure and sexually motivated assault.

Scrutiny of the Ladiser case led to internal reports showing Reardon and Soine had done little to address earlier allegations of sexual harassment by planning department supervisors. Then came an outside review by a special deputy prosecutor who criticized lax record-keeping at the county office that investigates internal bias complaints.

In April the county’s technology department was blasted in a separate audit that found an unusual lack of communication between Reardon’s office and other leaders in county government.

Soine announced his resignation shortly after that audit.

Haakenson said he’s not worried about the challenges ahead.

“I won’t be an elected official — I’ll be a county employee,” he said. “Clearly, there are some challenges that lay ahead. It’s just a bigger scale than what I’ve been doing with the city.”

Edmonds public works director Noel Miller, who served under Haakenson 11 years, said the mayor was supportive of his department.

“He’s a quick study,” Miller said. “He could get to the main issues and deal with those. As far as handling the details, he left it up to me to take care of the problem.”

Before becoming involved in city politics, Haakenson worked in retail. He started his career as a manager at J.C. Penney before co-founding Everett-based Zumiez, a national retail clothing chain with nearly 400 stores.

The Edmonds City Council will appoint a successor to Haakenson. Whomever is picked will inherit a city going through a rocky patch brought on in part by a big gap between revenue and spending.

“The 2011 budget is going to be nothing short of austere,” Councilman Michael Plunkett said.

Fellow councilman Strom Peterson saw positives and negatives in Haakenson’s move.

“Obviously, I’m disappointed for the city because I think Gary’s leadership has been great in the years he’s been in office,” he said. “I think it’s a good move for the county. I think the skills he’s shown running the city will transfer very well to what I think they need at the county.”

Oscar Halpert: 425-339-3429; ohalpert@heraldnet.com

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