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County drops idea of merging planning, environmental health dept, hires DEH director

 

By Michael Howell

A continued discussion about combining the Planning Department and the Department of Environmental Health under one administrator died on the vine last Monday, March 24, as the County Commissioners came to a consensus to maintain the status quo and keep the departments separate. Later in the day they appointed John Palacio to serve as Director of the Department of Environmental Health (DEH).

At the meeting Human Resources Director Robert Jenni recapped the commissioners’ considerations of two different departmental structures. One involved combining the DEH with the Planning Department into one department under one administrator, current Planning Department Manager Terry Nelson. The other option was to promote one of the existing sanitarians to Director and keep the departments separate. Jenni told the commissioners that the recently departed Director did not work full time but worked .875 time and was contemplating going to half-time. He also noted that there was currently no one in the office qualified to do subdivision review for the county so that was currently being sent to the state for processing.

Commissioner Jeff Burrows said that the savings first envisioned with combining the departments didn’t seem to have been realized now that it was all on the table.

Jenni agreed, saying there would not be much financial savings in the end by combining the departments since each needed their own administrative assistant. One had already been hired for the DEH, he noted. He noted that promoting an existing employee to be Director of DEH and not filling the vacant position would reduce the workforce from 4.875 to 4 and represents about a $43,000 savings.

Commissioner J.R. Iman suggested possibly separating out the duties of the Director and giving them to one of the Sanitarians and paying them a stipend for the extra services, but that idea didn’t pan out with the commission as a whole.

Commission Chair Greg Chilcott said that the stipend idea allowed for some flexibility but at the same time created some uncertainty about the ultimate authority.

“We need a point of contact, whatever you call it,” said Chilcott, “a department head, a lead, an administrator, someone who handles the budget and the personnel and that sort of thing.” He said the line of authority should be clear. He also noted that by hiring a department head from in-house and not re-filling the vacated position there would be some savings.

Commissioner Burrows agreed. He said it also saves the hassles and expenses of the proposed combination of offices.

“I wouldn’t be in favor of combining departments right now,” said Burrows. “It looked good on the surface, but I don’t think we can assign the duties of department head as a stipend.”

Commissioner Foss said, “If we are keeping it as an independent department it makes sense to have a department head so that we have a sure authority.”

Commissioner Chilcott said that he felt the position of “leader” left too much uncertainty about the authority.

“It’s nice to know who the boss is,” he said. He said a one-year probationary time would suffice to judge the abilities of the new Director.

In the end, Chilcott said that no motion was necessary since the Board seemed to agree that no change in structure of the departments was required and no new conditions of the offices, so the status quo was being maintained.

Later the Commissioners considered the candidates that had applied for the position of DEH Director which had previously been advertised. Four applications had been received, three from employees within the DEH – John Palacio, Rod Daniels and Dan Hooten – and one outside the office, Renae Harding.

Chilcott excused himself from the discussion and from voting due to having some ex partae communication with one of the applicants. In house applicants Palacio and Daniels received the highest scorings in a rating system used by the commission.

Commissioner Burrows said that based on his own scoring system, Palacio was at the top but followed closely by Interim  Director Rod Daniels.

Commissioner Iman agreed, saying that he gave top score to Palacio but Daniels was very close.

“It was neck and neck,” said Iman. “What gave John a little lead was how close he was to getting a Master’s degree.”

Commissioner Foss said that she had only one point difference in her scoring between the two.

Commissioner Ron Stoltz said that he did not score Palacio well at all and he backed Daniels.

A motion was made to accept Palacio and it was approved on a 3 to 1 vote with Stoltz voting against it. It was agreed to offer the position to Palacio at a salary of $43,500 which, after a one year probation period, would be bumped another $1,500.

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