It’s unknown who will fill two key Clatsop County leadership posts in the new year. But the jockeying has already begun for one of them.
After welcoming newly elected colleagues Mark Kujala and Pamela Wev in January, Clatsop County commissioners will appoint a new board chair before setting out to hire a permanent county manager.
They hope to pivot away from the private and public clashes that have beset the commission in the past year and a half.
“These are going to be big items,” Commissioner Kathleen Sullivan said. “I think every board starts out optimistic, and that’s how I’m going to be.”
Sullivan’s comments largely reflect the mood of the new commission in the transition period after election season. Careful not to offer predictions about how they will gel, commissioners expressed a desire in interviews with The Daily Astorian for more open, collaborative conversations as they steer the county in a new direction.
In October, commissioners appointed county Budget and Finance Director Monica Steele as the interim county manager when Clatsop County Manager Cameron Moore retires Jan 4.
Whoever is selected on a permanent basis will become the 10th county manager in under two decades.
“Other than the budget, this is the most important thing we will do this year as far as I see,” Commissioner Sarah Nebeker said.
Moore, hired in 2016, said last year that he identified Steele early in his tenure as a potential replacement. Since confirming her interest, Steele has become a more recognizable face in the county, assuming the role of assistant county manager in 2017.
Now, Steele will have an opportunity to apply for the top job.
“It is most likely that I will,” she said.
Kujala is looking forward to working with the other commissioners in an open hiring process that casts a wide net, he said. He likes Steele’s experience in county leadership and with the budget, he added.
“That’s a significant advantage,” he said.
Commissioner Lianne Thompson would like the board to hold work sessions to define its goals on certain county issues before beginning the hiring process, she said.
“We’ve had a lot of turnover. I’d like to pause and define our mission,” Thompson said. “I want us to define what we are as a governing body before searching for somebody.”
Kujala and Wev will replace Commissioners Scott Lee and Lisa Clement. Over the next few weeks, they will gather some basics about the county’s budget and decision-making processes. They will also meet with county department heads, local elected officials and organizations.
Lee served as the board’s chairman, and the first order of business for the commissioners is to select a new chair to replace him.
Nebeker, Thompson and Kujala have expressed interest. Nebeker has served on the board since 2013 and is currently the vice chair. Thompson has served on the board since 2015, and previously nominated herself in 2017 when the current commission met for the first time. Kujala is a former Warrenton mayor.
“It remains to be seen how that will all play out,” Nebeker said.
Thompson, Wev and Sullivan have been involved with Clatsop County Democrats. All three have expressed a desire for more oversight of the county manager and staff, one of the major wedge points on the current commission.
Thompson hopes the new arrangement on the board will help her collect a majority of votes, she said.
“We’ll see,” Thompson said. “I am more optimistic than last time.”
Commissioners have criticized Thompson in the past couple of years for her travel expenses and behavior with county staff. When Moore apologized for skipping a meeting earlier this year, he cited clashes with Thompson and Sullivan as a reason for his absence.
“Listen, if I was having fun, I would do it a couple more years. I’m just not having much fun right now,” Moore said when asked why he decided to retire. “I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on that.”
As commissioners begin searching for Moore’s replacement, the new board will also look to prove that it can work better together.
“I think we can do better,” Nebeker said. “It has been a divisive couple of years, and I’d like commissioners to find common ground.”
Thompson, for her part, will continue to push the board to hold more big-picture discussions, she said.
“We don’t agree on what’s the role of a county commissioner,” Thompson said. “Once that’s done, decisions will be easier.”
So, is the commission’s turmoil history?
“I can only hope,” Wev said.