• Arne Mortensen

Draft - new County Administration Organization

The functional organization of Cowlitz County services and administration has been a constant topic of discussion since before I took office this year. Immediately upon taking office, I was lobbied heavily to push forward a new organizational structure based on a home rule charter. After strongly rejecting the home rule approach, the pressure shifted to go with a county manager. A county manager would report directly to the Board of County Commissioners (BoCC), and the county departments would report to the county manager.

The argument for the county manager model was given as:

  • Having three people being the boss, doesn’t work. There is much truth to this. (Imagine having three governors).

  • The Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) makes communication between county commissioners difficult to impossible.

  • Underlying the above was an assessment that the system of government was underperforming and that this change would fix that.

  • Commissioners would be freed up to concentrate on policy, while the county manager would take care of details of execution.

I argued against getting a county manager because:

  • If OPMA is the problem, we should fix that problem. (OPMA may not be a problem depending upon the interpretation of the law, but the way it is commonly interpreted makes working together very awkward.)

  • One more layer of management seldom (ever?) fixes a problem, instead usually adds expense and bureaucracy.

  • I asked, why can’t the commissioners do as good a job as one county manager?

Now I will support a new organization that resembles in large part an organization run by a central manager. This new organization shows internal service departments officially reporting to a Chief of Staff. You can look at this hybrid organization chart, a draft, by clicking here.

Why consider this change?

  • Claire Hauge, a superior employee who is vital to county administration announced her retirement effective 5 Jan 2018. This fact forces considerable thought about how to go forward in the absence of her expertise, guidance, and substantial knowledge of operations.

  • We can go forward with a “Chief of Staff” (COS) with no additional cost to the county. The COS will replace Claire, and we will hire a department head secretary to support the COS. The secretary will replace a position left open due to a retirement earlier this year.

  • With a COS, we are starting with a limited but still aggressive move toward a structure which might lead to a traditional county manager. Further steps may be taken as we learn how the new organization addresses issues of concern.

  • Any organizational structure can be successful if the right people are in the right place. I now have reasonable confidence that we can find a person who will make the COS a successful position. Furthermore, I think the various department heads are interested in having more stable and reliable direction.

  • The reality that it takes too long to enact changes via a group of three commissioners who cannot meet but at scheduled public times. Once a policy decision is made, there are details in which the commissioners should not be involved; in other words, minor issues of no public interest (e.g. should the locks on the buildings be changed) just drag on until a formal meeting can be scheduled and announced publicly.

  • And, finally, we have been working under a structure that many in the public as well as in the administration feel is not working as well as they think it should. (To which commissioner should any employee address their questions, and from whom should they accept direction?) Therefore, it may be time for change, so let’s make this change with positive expectations.

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