Planning chief resigns under pressure from Island County commissioners

Island County Planning and Community Development will likely be split in two, with a separate leader for each half, following the surprise resignation Monday of department director Dave Wechner. 

Public health director Keith Higman will head long-range planning, under a plan proposed by county staff yesterday at the Board of Island County Commissioners’ regular Tuesday meeting. Higman will be responsible for overseeing completion of the Comprehensive Plan update now underway.

Hiller West, planning manager for current uses, will likely be appointed director of current-use planning and community development. This separation will likely last through the completion of the revised Comprehensive Plan, which is scheduled to occur by June 30, 2016.

These arrangements, proposed by the county’s Human Resources department with help from the prosecuting attorney’s office, could be finalized at a work session today.

“This is the direction we wanted things to go anyway,” Commissioner Rick Hannold commented at the meeting.

“I think both the community-development side and the long-range side will be better served throughout the coming year,” Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said.

“The Comp Plan needs history, community understanding and the ability to communicate complex issues. Keith is perfectly suited for that,” Commissioner Jill Johnson commented. “Current-use planning needs understanding of the building code and understanding of where we are at with a lot of permits. Hiller has done a stellar job with that.”

A motion to move toward the split passed unanimously.

The county had a similar interim division starting in 1998, during work on the first version of the Comprehensive Plan, noted director of Human Resources Melanie Bacon. It lasted for several years.

Wechner, who headed his department for nearly two and a half years, suddenly left his office at around noon Monday. His departure followed closed-door discussions between him and the commissioners that culminated in a session during which “we spoke with [him] on Friday suggesting his resignation,” Bacon said.

Wechner departed because “the Board of Island County Commissioners wishes to head in a different direction for the planning department,” Commissioner Johnson wrote yesterday in an email to county staff forwarded to the newspaper.

Wechner did not respond Monday to requests for details. The commissioners did not return a call Monday seeking comment. Johnson at Tuesday’s meeting said she would refuse to comment on Wechner’s departure “out of respect.”

Wechner headed a staff of about 25 people, according to that department’s website. Among them were long-range planners, land-use planners, public-works coordinators, building inspectors and permit technicians.

Sources in the planning department contacted for this story declined to comment on the record out of concern for their jobs, but one described Wechner as fair, honest and well liked by staff. Employees don’t know why he resigned, they said.

Three planning department staffers stood up at Tuesday’s meeting to express their regret over Wechner’s departure. So did three residents.

One of the latter, Freeland resident Tim Kangas, raised the issue of loud events taking place in rural neighborhoods. That issue, and the related issue of event centers being built in those neighborhoods, had put Wechner at odds with some of the commissioners.

“Dave Wechner brought a level-headed, process-based, honest, open and factual approach,” Kangas said. “I say to you that we have a serious issue in this county that needs to be resolved. I will be watching for the open procedures Wechner put into place to continue.”

Betty Snyder, a resident of the Langley neighborhood near the Comforts of Whidbey winery, asked Price Johnson whether Wechner’s dismissal was related to tension between him and her, or the other commissioners, over the Comforts’ attempts to hold frequent, large events on their property. That issue surfaced in April.

“The answer is ‘no,’ so she doesn’t have to answer,” Jill Johnson responded. “The answer is ‘no.’ ”

Price Johnson repeated, “The answer is ‘no.’ ”

Wechner’s departure comes in the midst of the county’s effort to revise its Comprehensive Plan, a document reflecting changes and anticipated changes in land use, housing, population growth, water, sewage, parks, schools, parks and recreation, transportation and shorelines. Island County adopted its first Comprehensive Plan in 1998. It completed its most recent periodic review and update in 2005. The updated version is due June 30, 2016.

News of the abrupt departure surprised those who worked with him or his staff.

“We are flabbergasted,” said Steve Erickson and Marianne Edain of Whidbey Environmental Action Network, who have frequently faced off against the county. “Unless some very cool heads step in, this has the potential to send Island County planning spinning into chaos.”

Erickson added, “We found him quite professional. If it seemed like a good idea, it didn’t matter to him who it came from, which couldn’t be said of all his predecessors.”

Wechner was unanimously nominated by the county commissioners in May 2013, leaving the position of planning chief of Josephine County, Ore. He started July 1, 2013, replacing Bob Pederson, who was hired in 2009 and left the job April 5, 2013, amidst long turmoil over a lawsuit with former county commissioner Kelly Emerson.

Higman served as interim planning director between April and the end of June.

“I think [Wechner] will be well matched with our county and with our community, and I’m really looking forward to his great success,” Price Johnson said at the time of his appointment.