Clark County’s new top executive understands that you ‘can’t do everything yourself’
VANCOUVER — In the almost four years since Kathleen Otto returned to work for Clark County, she has worked for three different county managers. Since March 13, she has served as the county’s interim county manager, a position she has now been entrusted with through May 31, 2021.
Like any good executive, the 45-year-old Otto took something from the experience working with each of her former co-workers. Above all the lessons she learned, and wisdom she gathered, was one key principle.
“I have very high expectations of myself,’’ Otto told Clark County Today. “One thing they all reminded me is you can’t do everything yourself and you don’t need to know everything. Listen, ask questions and surround yourself with professional staff. One day at a time.’’
In addition to the past four years, Otto’s tenure with the county includes a little over a year in human resources prior to her return. Since then, she has held positions as director of Human Resources, deputy county manager and director of Internal Services (Facilities, Human Resources, Budget Information Technology).
Mark McCauley, who was fired by the members of the Clark County Council on March 12, 2017, was the first county manager Otto worked with.
“Mark hired me as the director of Human Resources – for which I am truly grateful,’’ Otto said. “I worked here for just over a year before in Human Resources prior to taking another position. I saw opportunities at the county, appreciated the diversity of services and I was truly excited for the opportunity to come back.’’
Otto also worked with Shawn Hennessee, who resigned as county manager on March 13 of this year.
“I worked closely with Shawn and appreciated his insights,’’ Otto said. “He provided me the opportunity to expand my role as deputy county manager – director of Internal Services. As you know, the county provides a lot of diverse services. I’m appreciative that Shawn allowed me to join him in meetings and learn new areas of the county that I didn’t have as much exposure to.’’
Between McCauley and Henessee, Otto worked with Jim Rumpeltes, who contracted with Clark County to perform the county manager duties for about a year during the extended search that resulted in the hiring of Henessee.
“And, I don’t want to forget Jim Rumpeltes,’’ Otto said. “I worked with him for well over a year as he led the county as our interim county manager. Jim took a chance on me and afforded me the opportunity to serve as the deputy county manager. His calm approach, experiences and leadership was invaluable to me.’’
But don’t make the mistake to assume that Otto’s approach to her career isn’t grounded in her own set of ideals.
“The things that are important to me in the work environment are: doing what’s right for the right reason – at all times; integrity, honesty, humility; giving credit to the employees who do the work; and ensuring employees are set up for success, which will ensure successful services,’’ said Otto, who equates employee success to “clear expectations/goals, tools and training to the job, continual feedback, accountability.’’
Otto was, obviously, also an attentive observer during the past four years, as evidenced by the councilors’ decision to name her interim county manager upon Henessee’s resignation. The councilors then reinforced their decision on May 19 when they signed Otto to a contract that gives her the job until May 31 of next year.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, Kathleen has demonstrated exceptional leadership in working with county departments and elected offices during this unprecedented time,” Council Chair Eileen Quiring said at the time the county announced Otto’s new contract. “Her hard work has been integral to the county’s ability to effectively and efficiently address the county’s role in responding to the pandemic.
“Kathleen will continue working in the full capacity of county manager. She has served as interim county manager with dedication, excellence and professionalism and the council desires to recognize and confirm her continued service,” said Quiring.
In addition to that endorsement from the current county chair, Otto also receives high praise from the previous County Chair Marc Boldt, who preceded Quiring.
“I got to know her pretty well after we terminated Mark McCauley,’’ Boldt said. “She kind of stepped in for a little while during that time and I got to know her real well. I’ve always thought that a leader has to know where their lane is, to use a trucker’s term. I think so many leaders get out of their lane at times. Kathleen knows exactly where she is. She knows how to use the expertise of legal, planning, things like that. And, she has a unique spirit to bring all the people together. She is humble enough to do that and people respect her for that.’’
Getting to know Kathleen Otto
Otto’s hometown is Ferndale, Wa., located between Bellingham and the Canadian border. Her parents still live in that town. She has two older brothers, who live with their families in Camas and Beaverton.
“We moved there in 1980 during the second eruption of Mt. St. Helens,’’ Otto said of Ferndale. “I moved to the Portland area in 1993, and Clark County in 1998.’’
Otto graduated from the University of Portland, with a degree in Business Administration. She later added a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Phoenix.
Otto now lives with her husband and two cats (Fred and Barney) in the Venersborg area. Her husband grew up in Clark County.
“(We) enjoy spending time at home – we live in the Venersborg area on some property and absolutely love it,’’ she said. “We don’t travel as much as most people, but one of our favorite places is Whitefish, Montana.
“I like crafts, but I’m not too crafty – just started learning stained glass – it’s very therapeutic, just wish I was a little more skilled,’’ Otto said. “I’ve been an adjunct faculty member at Clark College for about six years – most recently I teach in the BASAM (Applied Management) program and teach Human Resources. While I do receive compensation for this work, I probably would do it for free. I believe in ongoing education, knowledge sharing, helping others learn how to be successful in their workforce, etc. – the energy in these classes motivates me to want to do better too.’’
The task at hand
With her duties as interim county manager during the time of a global pandemic, Otto and her husband may not have time over the next year to visit Whitefish, Mont. as they would like to do. She realizes that she is going to have a full plate for the foreseeable future.
“I’m honestly very grateful to be given the opportunity to continue to serve and I truly appreciate the council’s support,’’ Otto said. “Honestly, there hasn’t been a lot of time to actually think about it. Everything happened at the same time. What I can share is every person in this county had to respond to our new environment. I’m truly proud of the staff and how quickly we responded to make sure our employees were safe, and even though it looks different, we were able to provide necessary services.’’
Otto expressed recent experiences that many professionals can likely validate.
“In a sense, I believe we have come closer as a county – for example, leadership from all departments, elected and non-elected departments, have been meeting via phone every morning since everything changed to share the latest information and provide guidance on next steps,’’ she said. “Sometimes, just hearing the ‘good mornings’ on the phone is enough to set the right tone for the day.’’
Otto said her immediate focus is the county’s response to COVID-19, “including supporting Public Health, they are doing the work, assisting staff with operation impacts, budget implications and communication.’’
Otto added her on-going goal is to “make sure the council has all the pertinent information so they can create policies and ensure staff have what they need to implement the policies and provide necessary services to the community.’’
Obviously, Otto is not an elected official. She is appointed by the councilors. But, she says she knows who she ultimately works for.
“While the council is my immediate supervisor, I do believe I work for the residents of Clark County,’’ she said. “The residents deserve exceptional, efficient service. As we move into our new normal, my goal is to refocus on ‘why’ we work for the county – which is to provide services to our residents. The mission of Clark County government is: ‘We enhance the quality of life in our diverse community by providing services with integrity, openness and accountability.’
“The vision, mission and strategic actions that were developed and adopted a few years ago tell the story of what that looks like, what we strive for and what outcomes we, the community, should see,’’ Otto said. “Sometimes, we need to go back to the basics of remembering the ‘why,’ look at the policy, processes and people to make certain we’re meeting the rightful expectations of our residents.’’
Otto says she’s at peace with what happens after her current contract expires and that she is not consumed with having one word (interim) removed from her title.
“It is my desire to serve in a capacity that can continue to provide public service,’’ she said. “I have worked in the public sector for more than 20 years. This is part of who I am and what I am passionate about. What will that look like in one or two years – I don’t know. I can tell you I didn’t see myself being in this position when I came back to the county almost four years ago, but I’m humbly excited for the opportunity and looking forward to working with the team here at the county and supporting their efforts to provide the service the residents deserve.’’