County planning chief resigns suddenly, stuns colleagues

County planning director Dave Wechner, who held that job for nearly two and half years, suddenly resigned his position at around noon Monday. In response to a reporter's phone call minutes earlier asking whether rumors of his imminent departure were true, he emailed, "Yes, the county and I are parting ways. I hope to be walking out the door for the last time in the next few minutes."

County planning director Dave Wechner, who held that job for nearly two and half years, suddenly resigned his position at around noon Monday.

In response to a reporter’s phone call minutes earlier asking whether rumors of his imminent departure were true, he emailed, “Yes, the county and I are parting ways. I hope to be walking out the door for the last time in the next few minutes.”

He did not respond to requests for details. The Board of Island County Commissioners did not return a call seeking comment. No successor was immediately named. The commissioners could address Wechner’s departure during their regular public meeting today.

Wechner, officially director of Island County Planning and Community Development, 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.

His 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 Comp Plan in 1998. It completed its most recent periodic review and update in 2005. The updated version is due June 30, 2016.

News of Wechner’s 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.”

They 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 set into motion an effort to improve Internet access to planning department information and processes. “What’s going to become of that effort?” the couple asked. “If some of that can get implemented, it will save an enormous amount of work.”

Steve Waldron, founder of Oak Harbor’s Waldron Construction, said morale in the county planning department had improved since Wechner came on. “The people we deal with when we come in to get building permits seem happier,” he said.

Pat Powell, executive director of the Whidbey Camano Land Trust, said that her exposure to Wechner was limited but that he impressed her favorably. “He was really straightforward and he knew the code,” she said, referring to county and state regulations.

Wechner was unanimously selected 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. Health Department director Keith 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,” Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said at the time of his appointment.

When first hired, he pledged to use an open-door management style that would cut turnover in the planning department.

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