Island County Planning Director David Wechner says he hopes to bring an “open door” approach to his role while initiating process improvements.
Wechner filled the job vacated by Bob Pederson who was hired in 2009 and whose last day was April 5.
Health Department Director Keith Higman served as Island County’s interim planning chief through Wechner’s start date, July 1.
Wechner has served as planning director or design group lead in three Northwest-based areas including Vancouver, Wash., Sherwood, Ore., and Josephine County, Ore., where he worked as planning director until his Island County position began.
Wechner holds a master’s of science in environmental studies from the University of Oregon, with emphasis on planning, geography and law, and a bachelor’s of science in psychology from Washington State University.
Wechner said he switched his career path from psychology to planning because of his other interest, natural resources.
“That’s what drove me to (planning),” Wechner said. “I’m a generalist by nature. Planning involves environmental, economic and social factors. That all-encompassing approach appealed to me.”
However, Wechner said he’s found that his psychology degree is handy when communicating with staff and leadership.
“I can talk to people, and listen,” Wechner said.
One of major challenges for the county planning department has been staff turnover and competing with other jurisdictions for good employees, according to Wechner.
The department saw some unrest in recent years as Pederson initiated several major projects and led the department amid some unprecedented budget cuts.
In addition, Pederson left the job with the department embroiled in a lawsuit involving Commissioner Kelly Emerson and her husband Ken over a building project at the couple’s Camano Island home.
A settlement was reached in July that absolved the Emersons nearly all of their original $37,000 fine. Island County returned $2,000 in filing fees to the Emersons and, in return, the couple agreed to pay $5,000.
Wechner said he hopes his “open door” management style will encourage and support his staff, creating an environment that encourages longer tenures with the department.
“There’s a lot of good people working here,” Wechner said. “They’re the resource you really base your department on. If you’ve got constant turnover — and we’ve had a lot — the goal is to approach each project with fairness, consistency and impartiality. I want to hear from the staff who work with this code every day.
“Their input will be invaluable in making improvements.”
Working within the finite space of an island is also a new challenge for Wechner.
“Your options are fewer, how you’re going to provide services, the aquifers are limited,” Wechner said. “I think the expectations are different (on an island). It funnels the developmental impacts for those people who live along State Highway 20.”
To mitigate the island’s challenges, Mechner said he hopes to provide information to the island’s growing population while providing quick turnaround times.
“Of course, vying to provide excellent service is limited by resources,” Wechner said.
Moving forward, Wechner plans to evaluate the county’s permit processes, procedures and working with staff on developing solutions to increase efficiency and efficacy.
He is also interested in meeting with interest groups who represent citizens-at-large, developers and businesses to discuss community planning needs. He hopes to initiate improvements via technology to improve access to land use information for Island County residents and landowners, allowing planners to focus on reviewing permits and making other process improvements.
A seasoned Northwesterner, Wechner said he’s looking forward to enjoying the island climate, despite it’s somewhat unpredictable nature.
“I’ve lived in the Northwest,” Wechner said. “I’m used to it. I’m happy to be here. I enjoy Whidbey Island.”