The Gristle

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CHANGE-UPS: Perhaps the clearest signs of a strengthening government sector following the crash and recession of 2007 are the transfers of senior personnel, an indicator that budgets are easing and employers are hiring again. These transfers are an important part of the seeding of government with innovation developed elsewhere.

Crippled by collapsing revenues, the administration of Mayor Dan Pike could achieve scarcely more than lateral transfers and the occasional promotion of senior personnel into management positions. Notable in this period were the lateral hires of senior and woefully underappreciated county planning assets like former department head David Stalheim and Jon Hutchings, the county’s water resource manager. Other city departments, like police and fire, were aided by promotions from below, an excellent means of rewarding talent and honoring legacies, but not necessarily of placing a new set of fresh eyes on known problems. When the innovative Planning Director Tim Stewart lit out for a more bustling urban environment in 2010 he was replaced by Stewart’s protege Jeff Thomas, who was able to advance innovative neighborhood and community planning efforts such as the city’s urban village concept and green building initiatives. Indeed, Thomas was able to bring to completion a number of master planning efforts only initiated by Stewart. He helped realize one of Mayor Pike’s pivotal campaign promises by employing the recession in construction to good purpose, restructuring and revitalizing the city’s Permit Center.

Earlier this month, Thomas announced he also would light out for a more bustling urban environment to the south, accepting a similar job with the City of Sammamish, Washington.

“Under Jeff’s leadership, we have completed numerous plans that will ultimately make our city a better place, including the Fairhaven Neighborhood and Urban Village Plan, the York Neighborhood Plan, and many other plans and projects,” Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville said. “He also initiated the city’s first application of ‘lean’ principles, sponsoring a staff team that has gone on to make key improvements to our permit process.”

Thomas will be replaced in the near term by senior city Planner Greg Aucutt. Mayor Linville said she welcomed the opportunity to do a broad search for a new planning director, a search that could include applicants from current city staff.

“It is a very high-profile position. I think it is important to go outside,” Linville said. “But fresh perspectives and a deep understanding of history and process are both things we value. I want a search focused on people who share our values about planning—not how fast you can develop every square foot, but the vision that the quality of a community has to do with the three-legged stool: economy, environmental and social aspects.

“We will be doing restructuring in planning,” the mayor said. “I am very interested in establishing a community development department,” she said, bringing threads of activity distributed in her office and the planning department into a cohesive whole. “We did something very much like this when we created a natural resources focus when we hired Jon Hutchings, who has been very effective in focusing all the employees to work together in a coordinated way.”

Linville drew comparisons to her 2013 hire of Bellingham Police Chief Cliff Cook, who had a breadth of experience, “which was different from any of our internal candidates. His commitment to community policing and active crime prevention were important to me.” Cook was the first outside hire for chief of police in nearly two decades.

Planning and community development could also be transformed by the hire of a new hearings examiner. Dawn Sturwold, who has held the position since the office was created in 2000, will retire at the end of this month. The hearings examiner attempts to fuse city land-use policy outlined by Council with administrative law, over time creating a significant body of case law in the handling of development applications and appeals of administrative decisions. Sturwold announced her plans at the beginning of the year, and the mayor’s office and City Council will jointly appoint her replacement later this summer.

Of course, all of these change-ups are known to the Gristle thanks in part to the excellent service of COB Communications Manager Janice Keller, who is also leaving at the end of this month in a transfer to an analogous position for the Bellingham Public Library.

“Janice has been working in a very big and unfocused job for seven years, a job that grew larger and more complex through successive administrations. She was our institutional memory,” Linville said. “Part of my job, as boss, is to mentor people and ensure that they are growing professionally and when opportunities arise to light their fires, they can go do that. Her new job allows her to use her skills without having to put out a fire every minute of the day” as the city’s director of communications.

“When you don’t have to focus on cutting budgets, then you can focus on reprioritizing what you do within your budget,” Linville said. “You always take the opportunity of a vacancy to look to see if the way we are structured and operating is the best use of our resources. I made a commitment when I became mayor that everyone’s job was secure, we would be working together and be a team. When people find new opportunities, that gives me an opportunity to choose between the traditional way we do things and a different way. And that is an exciting opportunity.

“Any time you have someone with a different experience, they bring new ideas. Some are good, some less so, but someone from the outside needs to understand the difference between the core values of the city and the way we’ve always done things. They’re not necessarily the same.”

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