County Administrator Clark Schroeder is no longer employed by Curry County, the position itself is set to be eliminated Jan. 16 — and his seat at the dais had barely cooled before commissioners Court Boice and Chris Paasch entertained the idea of rehiring a former administrative director in his stead.
On Wednesday, commissioners voted 2-1, Boice casting the no vote, to approve the separation agreement between the county and Schroeder.
“I strongly oppose this agreement,” Boice said of the document County Attorney John Huttl called “one of mutual release and non-disparagement. But I want to turn the page, regroup and move forward. So I will abide by it.”
Boice didn’t elaborate why he disagreed with the agreement, particularly since he has been vocal in his feelings of distrust in Schroeder and opinions the county manager made too many mistakes in his job.
“We had a system that worked well,” Boice said of past operations. “We had a director of administration position that oversaw day-to-day duties but did not take all the authority away from the commissioners.”
Boice was referring to Julie Schmelzer, who currently works for Josephine County.
Both Boice and Paasch said they have spoken to Schmelzer and she is eager to return to her former job. She had served as director of administration and economic development from October 2014 to May 2016.
Schmelzer moved to Josephine County for better pay and the “freedom to improve the community,” she said in a press release Wednesday afternoon. “I love Josephine County, and I have done some amazing things here, but my heart belongs to Curry County. I’m anxious to come home and finish what I started.”
But first, Schroeder.
The county administrator, who has held the position for seven months, read a letter to the board before it voted to approve the separation agreement in an emergency ordinance. The board also voted, 2-1, Gold voting no, to rescind the ordinance that created the county administrator position. Because it was not a unanimous vote, a second vote will be held later this month.
Schroeder told commissioners his leaving was effective that afternoon, and he acknowledged the hard work of county employees, volunteers and others in the community, particularly for their guidance in a position that was new to both him and the county.
“Public service is a calling,” Schroeder said, “and I hold up the employees of Curry County for their dedication to serve the public good.”
He also offered a parting word of advice.
“Moving forward, there will clearly be a need for citizen engagement to transition Curry County to a fiscally sustainable position,” Schroeder said. “I encourage everyone to work positively and cooperatively together to solve these long-term financial, economic and housing problems, among others, and create a county that flourishes.”
Schroeder said he did not receive his full severance package — $42,000 — as outlined in his contract, noting that if the former board had terminated him in 2018, he might have been eligible for it. He didn’t say, however, how much the county has agreed to give him.
“It would have to go to litigation, and that wouldn’t be good for anybody,” Schroeder said Wednesday afternoon. “We parted amicably; I’ll take some money and we’ll walk away as professionals. I’m not resentful — I’m very happy; I still have a pretty good reputation.”
When asked, County Attorney John Huttl instructed the Pilot to submit a public records request to obtain the details of the separation agreement and the amount of money the county has agreed to pay Schroeder. There request was filed late Friday.
Eliminating the position
The official reason given for eliminating the county administrator position, Huttl said, was that the adoption of the ordinance creating the job “was a departure” from how county commissioners have historically approved ordinances — it wasn’t unanimous — and the new board wants to return “to the historic structure of governance that has served Curry County in the past.”
Gold said she voted against the measure because, in 2004, a citizen’s task force told the then-board that creating a county administrator or manager position should be the county’s number one priority. Secondly, she said, having an administrator made it easier to abide by public meeting laws, as they can serve as a conduit of communication between staff and other officials.
“Then there’s the continuity issue,” Gold said of long-term knowledge of a county and its workings. “We have commissioners coming and going — it’s a revolving door.”
More than half of Oregon’s general law counties have administrators to address staff, craft plans and vet ideas, freeing up commissioners to delve into long-term plans and solve problems of concern to the county.
Huttl will serve as interim administrator until then.
Schroeder’s parting wasn’t entirely unexpected.
“I ran on a platform of not having a county administrator,” Paasch said. “We’ve been very successful without one.”
Boice has been particularly vocal, even in meetings, about his feelings toward Schroeder, saying he was unqualified and untrustworthy — and the county could ill afford to add an $80,000-plus salary.
He has also claimed Schroeder has made many mistakes in his job, the most recent hiring, according to Boice, an “unqualified” building inspector at a rate that exceeds what the county pays for that job.
Schroeder said he was not surprised at the turn of events.
“It’s no surprise to me at all,” Schroeder said. “Once the election happened, I expected it. To say I thought this job would be a 10-year job would be a misnomer; it doesn’t exhibit that much stability. I didn’t think it would end this shortly; I still had things I wanted to do, goals and things I wanted to move the county forward with.”
Before he returns to Minnesota and a possible job in the public sector, Schroeder plans to spend some time hiking and exploring the backcountry of Curry County.
“I kind of compare (this job) to camping,” he said. “You go camping, you pick a campsite and pick up the little tin foil pieces and wrappers and leave it better than when you found it. When you go through life — friendships, relationships — it leaves something in you. It changes you somewhat. You’re writing your book of life. Curry County will have a couple pages of my book’s life; I hope I made a couple sentences in Curry County’s book of life.”
Schroeder had barely left the hearing room when Paasch and Boice broached the topic of bringing Schmelzer back. An administrative director, it was noted, wouldn’t have the same power and authority as an administrator.
Paasch and Boice spoke glowingly of Schmelzer.
“I was surprised when she was let go,” Paasch said. “She was doing a fantastic job. She gets rave reviews about the job she’s doing in Josephine County. Julie’s resume is impeccable. I’ve spoken to her many times about coming back.”
“When she left … I don’t know what to say,” said Boice, who maintains she was one of dozens who were “driven out” by former Commissioner Tom Huxley’s bullying. “It was incredibly unfortunate, unnecessary and almost tragic. Josephine County gobbled her up.”
Gold cut the conversation short, noting they were putting the proverbial cart before the horse by even considering a replacement so quickly.
“I realize I’m out-voted,” Gold said, regarding the vote to eliminate the administrator position. “I realize it’s important we work together. I will do that because that’s what makes a functional board. With a dysfunctional board, someone who is out-voted goes out and causes all kinds of problems. I’ll support whatever the board decides to do.”
Boice deferred to Gold, again touting Schmelzer’s accreditations, loyalty and integrity and saying she would support Gold in her endeavors.
Schmelzer has worked in county government in two states since 1986, holds a bachelor’s degree in urban and regional affairs and a masters in public administration.