Curry County commissioners have made a preliminary offer to Clark Schroeder, a Minnesota development consultant, to become the county’s first permanent administrator.

The decision to hire Schroeder came Saturday morning after last Friday evening’s meet-and-greet with him, a second candidate Tom Smith, and about 30 members of the public — mostly county employees — at the Event Center on the Beach in Gold Beach.

Details have yet to be worked out, said Interim Administrator John Hitt, but Schroeder is expected to attend the county’s budget committee discussions May 14-17 and move to the area in June.

The Prothman Co. of Portland has been searching for months to find a permanent county administrator. Hitt, who has held the interim position since last September, initially said he couldn’t take the job due to a family issue, but by the time that was resolved, it was too late to apply.

Those in attendance who filled out a “preference” checklist gave Hitt — as a write-in — the most votes, with eight, followed by Schroeder’s seven and one for Smith. Commissioner Court Boice, who has advocated for hiring Hitt, was not at the meet-and-greet nor the discussion in executive session Saturday after which it was decided to hire Schroeder.

Hitt laughed when asked for comment.

“I think the commissioners have the right to choose any candidate they think is going to do the best job,” he said. “I’m confident I would have done a good job for county and board, but they decided otherwise.”

Hitt said his plans are up in the air now, as his home in Lebanon is in escrow to be sold. He said he might look for another interim or part-time administrative position, or he and his wife might “snowbird for awhile,” alternating between a home he co-owns with his son in Texas and traveling to Curry County in the summers.

Who is Schroeder?

Schroeder grew up on a farm in the Midwest, received a degree from the University of Wisconsin, and was the administrator of about 150 employees with a $2.4 million budget in St. Croix County.

Funding ran out for the position and Schroeder returned to school to get an accounting degree from the University of Minnesota and a masters in public administration from Hamline University in St. Paul.

He was an interim city administrator for a year in a city of about 8,000 people, but decided not to apply for the permanent position, he told the group Friday.

Then he went on to develop a nine-hole golf course community of 350 homes.

He and his wife of 25 years, Summer, have two daughters.

“I’m interesting in looking at something different in life,” he said. “It’s not like Florida, Texas, Arizona. I like to grow our own food; I like space. That’s what draws me to this area. I’d like to experience this side of the United States, to see if this is where we’d like to make a permanent location.”

First things first

Schroeder said the first thing he wants to do as a county administrator is listen.

“I’m not from your state; there are things I have to learn about,” he said. “I don’t know where the land mines are here; there are plenty of things here to trip me up.”

He said he’d rather sit back and learn for about 90 days before making suggestions, than come into the county “like a bull in a china shop and spoil it for everyone.”

Schroeder said he understands Curry County is in a “very challenging” economic situation, and that while there are short-term solutions, it needs long-term plans to compete. He suggested merging or eliminating services — although admitted there is only so much the county can do with its limited funds — or raising taxes.

“The citizens ultimately decide how much money the county has, what level of government it wants, what level of government it’s willing to pay for,” he said. “They get what they deserve at the local level.”

Many in the community have even questioned the need for a county administrator or manager, but Schroeder said the purpose of one is to keep the board — and thus the county — more centered as it goes through different leaders with potentially wildly different views on issues.

“It’s good for continuity of leadership, employment and risk management,” he said.

Healing

In recent years, Curry County has had its share of infighting and posturing, and Schroeder was asked how me might handle the “healing” of such rifts.

“Obviously you want elected officials not to take things personally against each other because there will be less function as an agency,” he said. “My job is to smooth the waters so people can work together and have cohesive relationships. There are limited things to do.”

Schroeder cited a contentious situation he had to address.

“A five-member council took everything so personally — they went way out of their way to make life miserable for everyone else,” he said. “I tried to bring in mediation, I typed up an ordinance about how they must interact. Eventually it got better by election — the voters made it get better.”

Asked about how he felt about living in such a far-flung part of the nation, Schroeder said he is used to it, opting to take vacations in the vast, empty Boundary Waters of his home state. And he’s also aware of the limited health care options here.

“You’re in a rural area; it goes with the territory,” he said. “You’re never going to get high-quality health care. It’s just different.”

Some at Friday’s meeting expressed their concern that Schroeder also plans to return home to Minnesota once a month for an extended weekend. In the meantime, he has to find housing here, in an incredibly tight market.

Another issue commissioners will likely have to address is residency, as the full-time administrative position requires the chosen candidate to be a resident of Curry County.

Candidate No. 2

Smith hails from Utah, where he obtained a degree in criminal justice from Utah Valley University and his master’s in public administration from the University of Utah.

He has worked in Orem managing an $86 million budget, and in South Weber City as the assistant city manager for two years before becoming the city manager for another two. A change in leadership in that city resulting in his being asked to leave, he said.

“I’m interesting in looking for a career change,” Smith said. “I want to see what’s available.”

Smith said he is an Orem, Utah native — population 97,500 — and his wife is originally from Burbank, California, so neither has lived in a small community.

“It’d be a culture shock; it’d be a change,” he admitted. “But over time, we’d embrace it and we’d adapt to it. It would be good to get (their children) out of the big city and into the trees.”

Schroeder a given?

Sheriff John Ward said felt the meet-and-greet was a farce and Commissioners Sue Gold and Tom Huxley wanted to appoint someone other than Hitt before the budget talks get fully underway.

Neither returned calls for comment.

Hitt has advised the commissioners to beef up some departments, notably the sheriff’s department, which has limped by for years without adequate funding.

“Huxley doesn’t want to keep Hitt, and Gold is going along with him,” Ward said. “Hitt has been doing what this county government needs and has the county’s best interests at heart. Ask yourself what certain current commissioners have done to increase funding for public safety. Has there been any effort on finding stable funding?”

Huxley and Gold both ran on election platforms to cut county “fat” to balance the budget in light of shortfalls every year due severe cutbacks in timber sale receipt funds and the elimination of the Secure Rural Schools program. That program was just given a two-year lifeline and will bring about $400,000 to Curry County next fiscal year.

Hitt hopes the new board, to be seated in January, will have serious discussions about the financial status of the county.

“There is a whole ton of work that needs to be done to decide the minimum, bare-boned standards, the desired standards, the costs and how to meet those costs,” Hitt said. “I don’t think that discussion has gone on before, and I would love to see the new board take a couple months and really focus on it.

“They certainly need to,” he added. “Once the (recently reinstated Secure Rural Schools funds) are completely revoked, there will be a significant shortfall and major, major cuts in almost every department if no additional revenue is found.”

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