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County prepares to hire Thoreen's successor

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

Stevens County Coordinator Jim Thoreen announced unofficially that he would be retiring early this summer. Two weeks ago, he made it official in a letter to the board that they grudgingly accepted. The commissioners thanked him for his service and piled an ample supply of good-natured jokes on the amiable Thoreen that seemed to make what has to be a difficult decision for both less onerous.

In three work sessions - during which official action can't be taken -- the county board reached a consensus that it will hire a replacement.

On Tuesday, the board approved a new job description for the coordinator position.

Earlier this month, the board hammered out a job description for Thoreen's successor that may or may not be to the liking of county department heads.

Their goal, given state mandates and current budget constraints, is to pave the way for a more streamlined form of county administration and delivery of services than the current structure permits.

The coordinator's position differs from that of a county administrator, who by law wields considerably more power on county operations. Counties such as Stevens have department heads - such as Treasurer/Auditor, County Attorney and County Recorder - who are elected officials. Other department heads, such as engineer, assessor and the head of environmental services, are appointed. Coordinators act as liaisons between county employees and the county board and facilitate the operations of non-elected departments but does not supervise them.

That will change somewhat under Thoreen's successor now that the county board has adopted the job description.

The County Coordinator will continue to directly supervise environmental services and planning and zoning, an administrative assistant and the county's Extension office manager. However, the commissioners approved of a job description provision suggested by Thoreen that will allow the coordinator "to assist the county board with cooperative efforts with department heads to reform and revise the county's organizational structure as opportunities, finances and needs present themselves."

Further, the coordinator will orchestrate the preparation of annual performance evaluations of non-elected department heads, something which until now had not been formally undertaken.

Commissioners noted that Thoreen for years had been performing many of those functions but not under a formal job description. Thoreen noted that, in a meeting with department heads, some expressed concern that concentrating more power in the coordinator's office might restrict their abilities to make decisions within their perview and department budgets without first consulting the coordinator.

Commissioners tried to assuage those concerns by stating they will perform exhaustive background checks on job candidates to prevent "micromanagement."

Early in the discussions about the coordinator's position, the board stated it might name an interim with the intention of filling the position full-time by the beginning of 2011.

The county has begun advertising the position. A review committee will meet in mid-April, and interviews could begin in late April or early May.