Letter: Hiring of planning director raises questions


How is it that an unqualified politician who has previously received political contributions from developers and related special interests is quietly anointed to a powerful planning position within our local government all while entirely bypassing a competitive and open selection process? It warrants scrutiny as to how this went down at a time when the county’s tax-paying citizens were locked down or scrambling to hold their own employment.

The director of planning is one of the most impactful positions in our county government. It’s unsettling to learn that a politician, Mary Engle (former assessor), was permanently appointed to this high-level position while meeting little to none of the original requirements for the job.

A deeper dive into this appointment reveals concerning details. Apparently, the basic job requirements for this Director position were completely waived to make way for Ms. Engle. The minimum education was effectively lowered from a college degree (with a Masters preferred) to a high school diploma. Furthermore it was previously required that the director be an AICP certified planner with eight years of management-level experience. With no previous planning experience, Ms. Engle met neither of these requirements. Island County is now among the only counties in the state to have an uncertified planning director.

The State Auditors office openly frowns on these types of appointment practices and there are state hiring rules to discourage these unqualified “bypass” appointments. Even if it is technically legal in this county, most fair-minded taxpayers view it as unethical and wrong.

It’s also no secret that there has been a recent exodus of some talented county staff, namely in planning. If staff morale is already low, what message do political appointments like this send to staff members that are striving to make a positive impact through public service? What does it say when their boss’s boss is less qualified than an entry level planner position, yet getting handsomely paid $120,000 a year?

As one of the many veterans who have served in parts of the world that struggle to establish and preserve a most basic form of democratic governance, I hold tight to the principle that public oversight and accountability of our local government is a critical duty of citizens and essential to ensure democratic integrity.

With pandemic restrictions lifted, it’s crucial that we fully re-engage our county government, get involved, ask tough questions and respectfully demand verifiable answers from our elected leaders. May our small-but-mighty local paper do its part to look behind the curtain and help inject more accountability.

This should not be personal. It is a government transparency and accountability issue at its core.

The solution is straight-forward. The Board of Commissioners should open this position back up for a fair and competitive process. Ms. Engle would be welcome to re-apply even using her updated resume. This critical position influences the future character of these islands we love and we deserve the best qualified candidate we can get for our tax dollars.

Jake Stewart