County preps assistant manager for top job

Monica Steele, pictured here speaking at a recent meeting of the Clatsop County Board of Commissioners, is the new assistant county manager. Steele will also continue in her role as the county's budget and finance director.

Clatsop County Manager Cameron Moore held one of his regular check-in meetings with Budget and Finance Director Monica Steele last summer. Moore usually asks employees at these one-on-one talks about their future plans and goals. At this meeting, though, he was specifically curious about Steele’s interest in one position: his own.

“Have you ever thought about a job like this?” he asked her. Steele answered quickly. “Yeah, someday I’d like to have your job,” she said.

Steele may have taken a step closer to that goal this week when she began her new duties as assistant county manager. She will continue in her role as budget and finance director while helping Moore conduct administrative tasks.

While Moore and Steele view the move as an immediate improvement, as well as a necessary step in succession planning, some county elected officials have raised concerns.

Moore has been trying to find a clear replacement, whether it be short term or long term, since he became county manager in April 2016. He was hired to curb a trend that saw nine different county managers in 16 years, though the recent past was not a consideration for him in this decision, he said.

“That’s the most important thing a leader does is to plan for succession,” Moore said. “What happens if I’m not here tomorrow. What happens if I’m not here next year?”

The assistant county manager position was eliminated due to budget cuts in the recession. But this year’s spending plan is considerably healthier, representing a nearly 25 percent increase from just two years ago.

“Certainly compared to a lot of other counties in Oregon, we’re in pretty decent financial shape,” Moore said. “Other places are dealing more with cutting staff and things that we’re not having to do right now. It’s a lot more fun to be in this position than it is to be in that position.”

The assistant county manager vacancy essentially combined two full-time positions into one, making this transition a natural fit, he said. He expects the move will allow Clatsop County to engage more comprehensively in issues such as policy advocacy at the state level.

“The county manager staff is really small,” Moore said. “There’s so many things that we do. There has to be somebody at a high enough level at the county that can engage in discussions with other counties, maybe cities in the county.”

Moore and Steele will work closely, often attending the same meetings. Having a like-minded assistant who is privy to the same discussions will help Moore maintain consistency with staff even when he is away.

“That’s important for the staff, frankly, so that they don’t wonder if there’s a problem,” Moore said. “There might be things that come up when I’m out of the office, but I need to be confident that those things will be handled in a way that I would like them to be handled if I had been here myself.”

The initial goal is for Steele to become the full-time assistant county manager within three years. In the meantime, she will specialize on a rotating set of issues each year until her base of knowledge is more complete.

The budget office planned to hire a full-time employee to replace a departing half-time employee. The hire will allow two accountants to take on larger roles in Steele’s partial absence.

Steele will receive the same $97,810 salary as last fiscal year. The budget allocates 60 percent of her salary toward the budget and finance director position and 40 percent for the assistant county manager position. But Steele is under no illusions that her work hours will not increase.

“There are a lot more responsibilities stepping into a role like that. There is big time commitment,” Steele said. “I feel like, at this point in my career, that it’s something I would be interested in pursuing, to move up to that next level.”

After initially receiving a bachelor’s degree in exercise science, Steele changed career paths. She worked in a variety of accounting positions in the private sector and eventually earned an accounting degree as well.

She started working in the Clatsop County Budget and Finance Office in 2010 as the assistant director before being promoted to lead the department in 2014. The office has earned awards for its budget presentation each year since.

“Monica was already perceived by a lot of people as a leader,” Moore said. “She had already earned a broad level of respect from county staff. Whoever is in that senior financial position, they touch every part of that organization. People in those positions often start with a very good base of knowledge about other parts of county operations.”

So when Steele definitively expressed her interest in moving toward management, Moore was pleased.

“That said something to me, that she had a desire,” he said. “I guarantee you there are people here that would say, ‘No way in hell would I take the county manager job.’”

Though she didn’t start on a path toward local government, it has become an adopted passion for Steele.

“I just love county government,” she said. “It can be a really hard job from day to day trying to make people happy, not just the citizens, but the staff and the commissioners. We have a set of laws that we have to follow.”

Steele may be tested early on that front.

Some county elected officials have expressed concerns both publicly and privately about the process under which Steele assumed the position, as well as the perception that she may be preparing to eventually become the county manager.

The county charter grants the Board of Commissioners the sole power to hire a county manager. Scott Lee, the board’s chairman, said he has been supportive of the move since Steele was first approached about the position. He noted it re-establishes a position that was forced to be cut, and that Steele already assumes interim county manager responsibilities when Moore is away.

“She’s assumed that role quite effectively,” Lee said. “We feel that this is a logical step. It’s a good general housekeeping issue.”

Commissioner Lianne Thompson, however, said that county staff heard about the transition long before she and other commissioners did. Thompson, the sole “no” vote when the county budget was adopted last week, is displeased that commissioners did not have more time to deliberate on Steele’s transition, among other things.

“It’s about role and scope of authority,” she said. “For Cam to select the person who will succeed him is inappropriate. This is what the county’s governing body has devolved to.”

Thompson has repeatedly questioned whether or not commissioners have the proper amount of sway in county decision-making.

Lee seems to agree the board has devolved, though not in the same way. When asked about recent dissatisfaction expressed by commissioners, he said the professionalism of the board has been called into question.

“I think the process has been open and transparent. We’re not grooming a future county manager; we’re re-establishing a position.” Lee said. “I think it’s irresponsible rhetoric, and I dismiss it.”

Both Steele and Moore acknowledged the board will have the final say in any future hiring decision and that a number of applicants will likely be considered.

“This isn’t hiring a county manager, and this isn’t saying that I would necessarily get hired as a county manager,” Steele said. “It’s just somebody so, should something happen, you have an interim, somebody who’s in that place who is familiar with all of the events going on currently.”

Moore added that by the time he eventually vacates the county manager role, which he has said will be his final position before retirement, the board will likely feature a new assortment of commissioners.

“There are no guarantees there,” he said. “I don’t think anybody could presuppose what that might look like.”

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