Curry County Interim Administrator John Hitt unexpectedly resigned Thursday morning and his replacement, Clark Schroeder, begins June 4 — leaving the county without an administrator during critical budget talks.
His last day was originally scheduled to be May 4.
“My days were very numbered as it was,” Hitt said. “I just got to thinking last night that, under these circumstances, I don’t feel I’d be effective over the next few weeks; I don’t feel comfortable taking money from taxpayers if I’m not productive, if I’m butting my head up against the wall. It’s in everyone’s best interest if I cut the cord now.”
The Curry County Board of Commissioners agreed Wednesday to end their contract with the Prothman Co. of Portland, which was hired last year to find an interim and permanent director. Hitt has filled the interim spot for eight months. He will not take a severance pay upon his departure.
Hitt didn’t apply for the permanent county administrator position due to issues in his family. Those issues were resolved, however, a few days prior to a meet-and-greet with two other candidates for the job. Many thought Hitt deserved the job because the board knows him and how he works.
County elected officials urged the commissioners to hire Hitt.
In an email to Hitt, County Assessor Jim Kolen wrote: “You have conducted yourself as a gentleman and a professional acting with concern for the vital functions that are and should be provided by this county for the benefit of the citizens we serve.
“You have recognized that the people working for our citizens are professional, intelligent and diligent team players who are doing an excellent job in spite of the difficult circumstances under which Curry County finds itself. Your work has been performed under the view of and appreciated by the public as evidenced by the dozens of calls, emails and letters to the commissioners calling for your retention as the permanent county administrator.”
He also said he was not pleased Hitt wouldn’t be kept through the budget process.
“You have the background, experience and temperament to provide unbiased counsel to the Curry County Budget Committee,” he wrote. “It is likely that you likely have a great deal more municipal budget experience that all six commissioners and budget committee members combined. We requested that you be retained through the county budget deliberations.Commissioners agreed you would be retained through the budget process (so) it surprises me now that two Commissioners without benefit of departmental, or public input and with no advanced notification terminated your employment effective prior to budget deliberations. It is a disappointing decision and in my opinion a disservice to our citizens.
Hitt said he felt he would be butting heads with commissioners if he participated in budget talks, as the reaction of “the majority,” he said, wouldn’t support the recommendations he made during a March 28 budget presentation. In those, he suggested the county increase funding for certain departments, particularly that of the sheriff’s.
The county’s general fund was slated to be about $300,000 to $400,000 short when Hitt made his budget presentation; his suggestions would have increased that to just over $1 million — but put patrol deputies on the road 24/7, update software, participate in a program to bring property assessments up to date and hire a few needed people.
“Once you reach the point where you get the strong feeling the board isn’t accepting your recommendations, agreeing with your recommendations or input, probably not much will go on (in discussions).”
But then Congress unexpectedly approved reinstating the Secure Rural Schools program in the federal budget last month; that will bring about $400,000 to Curry County’s general fund — enough to craft a business-as-usual budget for fiscal year 2018-19.
Most of that work will be left up to County Accountant Louise Kallstrom, who built this year’s budget, and the budget committee.
“I think they felt they don’t need anyone else, so why would I continue?” Hitt said. “The commissioners wanted to move on to a new county administrator, so I figured why prolong things? They obviously didn’t want my input on the budget. I would hope they’d at least consider the (suggestions).”
Kolen suggested Hitt apply for the Brookings City Manager position being vacated with Gary Milliman’s retirement later this year, but Hitt said he plans to “be a snowbird” and travel between Gold Beach and a home in Texas — unless another interim position becomes available somewhere.
“It was a challenge,” he said, of working with a board whose members more often butt heads than agree on issues. “And I loved working here in Curry County. I want to thank the citizens for the opportunity. I enjoyed my work a lot; I worked with many, many great people.”
Schroeder begins work next month, with a salary of $86,000 — the very low end of industry standards. If for some reason other than misconduct the board terminates him, he will receive six months’ severance pay.
And the board has agreed to let him work remotely from his home in the Minnesota, once a month from Thursday to Tuesday — another issue that has been scorned on social media. It is not known if the county will pay for those travel expenses.
David Marshall, who Hitt hired as a finance director and now is a project manager, also quit his job.
“I was quite upset,” he said. “I heard so much about Curry County, and with exception of Court Boice, (administrative assistant) John Jesuit, Hitt and a couple others, it’s about as difficult a time I’ve had.”
He said he didn’t think his days were numbered, but his hours.
“I had zero confidence I’d be here by the end of the month,” he said. “I told John I figured I had a half-life left in Curry County and wouldn’t even have anyone to sign my last time sheet. I’ve been in the public sector for 25 years, and I’ve seen some things that are pretty remarkable, but this is incredible. I’m out of here.”
Excerpts of mail to Curry County Board of Commissioners: Upon further reflection of yesterday’s meeting, I don’t believe that I can continue to serve effectively as interim county administrator. Hence I feel it is in the best interest of the BOC, as the governing body, if I resign effective today.
I thank you all for the opportunity to serve as interim county administrator. The job was always interesting and it was a real pleasure getting to know the many amazing people on our county staff, as well as a great number of dedicated citizens.
I wish all the best for you personally, as well as your future work here at the county.
Email to others: This was done with a heavy heart, but also with the conviction that, based on yesterday’s BOC meeting (as well as other issues that have risen in recent weeks), I can no longer serve effectively as interim administrator.
Thank you all so much for your support of me, and more importantly, your very fine work for the citizens of Curry County. It has been an honor and pleasure getting to know you and work with you these last eight months.
I will miss all of you and wish you the very best. Thanks again for all you do.