Henessee has dealt with some personal chaos while trying to adapt to a job he admits has been “one of the most intense learning experiences” of his life
CLARK COUNTY — New Clark County Manager Shawn Henessee has had a hectic first six weeks on the job.
“It’s, candidly, been one of the most intense learning experiences I’ve had, even more so than the beginning of law school or anything,” Henessee says. “Even though I’ve got a lot of experience in county government, there’s so many myriad pieces to an organization this size. And I knew it would be this way.”
But the chaos of beginning a complicated new job began even before Henessee, his wife, and three dogs arrived at their new (old) home in the Rose Village neighborhood. They drove two cars from Pleasant Hill, Missouri to Vancouver, then Henessee flew back to drive a U-Haul with the rest of their belongings, “30 miles per hour, up a mountain.” All of that with a dog that had incontinence issues.
Henessee arrived on the Friday before he started, then hit the ground running the following Monday.
“I seem to have a knack for starting a position right when a budget is coming into creation,” says Henessee. “But the councilors have been great, the employees have been great.”
Despite the craziness of the new position, Henessee says he’s actually been more comfortable at work. Shortly after moving in they discovered one of their miniature schnauzers has diabetes, requiring regular insulin injections. To add to that, Henessee’s wife lost a close friend of their family and had to fly back to Kansas City for the funeral.
In spite of the long hours and personal chaos, Henessee says this is his dream job in a place he had long hoped to work. He first visited the area three years ago, and says he fell in love with the Pacific Northwest.
“We actually stayed here in Vancouver and I told my wife at the time, ‘this is beautiful right here. I wish I could get a job up here,’” Henessee recalls.
After that he applied to get licensed to practice law in the state of Washington, and jumped at the chance after the Clark County manager position opened up.
Henessee is a tall man, but not overly imposing. He tends to use the word “candidly” a lot, and speaks openly and earnestly about the challenges facing Clark County. When he talked with ClarkCountyToday.com on his first day, Henessee pointed to the general fund budget as the biggest challenge facing the county, and he says that opinion has crystalized, rather than changing.
“It always looks different after you start in a position, as opposed to when you’re looking on the outside through newspaper articles or word of mouth,” he says.
The problems with the budget, he says, will need time to work out. “It’s not a situation you’re going to rectify in one or two years, or really even three years.”
Much of that includes a backlog of projects, including a new county jail, a massive project that the county council is expected to consider early next year.
Another sticky situation is one that has existed since well before Henessee’s arrival — the county’s Growth Management Act, which has been tied up in legal challenges ever since it was adopted and is coming up for review this next year.
“The Growth Management Act, in and of itself, is a different kind of a beast than what you see in almost any other state, because you don’t usually see that kind of a top-down GMA statewide,” says Henesseee, who has a background in land use law — potentially a key bit of experience that played into the quick decision to hire him.
Clark County’s “unique” problem
Henessee doesn’t like to overuse the word “unique”, but he says Clark County certainly is different than most other counties that he’s been involved with.
“Essentially it’s a massive city in an unincorporated area,” says Henessee. “What that means is that Clark County, in many ways, is providing a lot of the services that a city would. You still have to provide the services that a county does, but then because of the amount that you’re built up you have a lot of those additional services in that unincorporated area.”
That’s a key part of the problem with the county budget, along with being on the border with Oregon, where people can shop and avoid sales tax. But Henessee says residential growth in the northern part of the county could give rise to more people shopping here, rather than braving the traffic to save a few bucks in Oregon.
“I’m very optimistic about the future of Clark County,: he says, “but I’m also a realist to know that to get some of these funding issues — it’s going to take multiple years and a lot of hard decisions in multiple areas in order to be able to address it.”
Part of the issue, he says, has been that Clark County is, largely, a residential growth area, without a lot of commercial growth to build up the tax base.
“You’re starting to see more commercial appear,” he says. But even that brings its own brand of opposition, especially among those who want to see the county remain close to its agricultural roots. Henessee says, in general, he’s in favor of business and economic growth, but also realizes it needs to be done in a way that respects the history of the region. Growth also comes with its own added costs, including the need for better infrastructure and services such as police and fire.
“Budgeting just basically boils down to your revenue and your services, and what is the mix you want of the two,” Henessee says. “And they’re directly correlated.”
Already Henessee says he’s had have some difficult conversations with various county departments.
“I’ve had several groups come to me and ask for money, and I was just up front with them and told them I just can’t support giving you additional money,” he says. “It’s a small amount they’re asking for, but we do not have the financial support to be able to do that.”
For the most part, Henessee says he’s been met with respect for his straightforward approach and honesty, although he’s also heard his share of criticism already.
“Sometimes people express it in ways which aren’t the most delicate,” he says, “but I think that it’s important that you listen to people and even if you can’t come to an agreement that you give consideration to what their points are, and hopefully you can come to a compromise.”
Put more succinctly, “Don’t get into this profession if you don’t have a thick skin.”
Henessee credits his law school education and the Socratic method for allowing him to work through problems, and seek common ground.
“Sometimes if I’m in a meeting and everyone is nodding their head because we’re discussing something, I’m just going to say — and I have said — ‘please, somebody disagree with me,’” he says.
Council changes coming
One challenge Henessee will have to face come next year will be a change of leadership on the Clark County Council. Current county chair Marc Boldt failed to finish in the top two during the August primary, meaning District 4 Councilor Eileen Quiring will face off with newcomer Eric Holt in November. If Quiring wins, the council will need to fill her vacant seat. Meanwhile District 1 Councilor Jeanne Stewart faces a stiff challenge for her seat from Temple Lentz, one of the architects of the county charter. District 2 councilor Julie Olson is thought to be a safe bet to win re-election.
“Any time you have new and different people, they always have different perspectives and different priorities,” Henessee says. “I view my role as providing information to the councilors in regards to them coming up with a policy. Giving them options and then implementing their policy.”
Henessee has also faced a challenge in filling some vacancies in other positions at county departments. Animal Control lost its director and several employees in a shakeup earlier this year following an internal investigation, but with the naming of Susan Anderson to lead that department, Henessee says it is nearly back to full staffing.
He also has named a new budget director, and will be looking for a new public works director after Heath Henderson left. Recently they also found out that the head of General Services would be retiring soon.
“That’s a lot of institutional knowledge that you lose, and that’s a concern,” says Henessee. “The advantage is that sometimes you get new eyes looking at things in a different way, and that’s a good thing too.”
Henessee says he’s hopeful that, eventually, things will settle down enough for him to get out and enjoy more of the area he now calls home. While he and his wife aren’t avid outdoor enthusiasts, he says he is excited to visit the Gorge and other natural wonders the Northwest has to offer. Mainly though, he prefers to settle down with a good book. Henessee says they selected their home, in part, because it has a large basement where he can store his massive book collection. It’s enough books that he was concerned about weighing down the main floor of an older home with them.
Asked what the main thing is he would like people to know about Shawn Henessee, the County Manager says he hopes it’s that he’s open to feedback, willing to admit if he’s wrong, and ready to compromise if it’s in the best interest of the county.
“I certainly don’t have a lot of time or inclination for bickering,” he says. “I just… I’m too busy for that. And it’s not my nature anyway.”