Clark County gives Barron royal send-off

Longtime administrator at peace with decision to retire

By Erik Hidle, Columbian staff writer

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photoClark County Administrator Bill Barron grew emotional toward the end of his speech thanking those who honored him at a farewell ceremony on Thursday.

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Clark County Administrator Bill Barron's final day is Sept. 10.

He retires after 40 years of public service that began in 1972 in Illinois. Barron took the job as Clark County's top administrator in 1998. During his time in Clark County, Barron helped build the Public Service Center, expand the county fairgrounds and lead the organization through a tumultuous and austere financial period amid the Great Recession.

Former and current elected officials, county staff and members of the public said goodbye to Barron during an emotionally charged farewell ceremony on Thursday afternoon.

The dozen who spoke — including commissioners David Madore, Tom Mielke and Steve Stuart and former Commissioner Betty Sue Morris — praised Barron for his integrity, attention to detail and work effort. He was called a teacher, a leader, a coach and a friend.

Mielke called Barron a patient man for how he "tolerated, guided and mentored" the many "type-A personality" commissioners he served.

"And we all looked up to you," Mielke said.

Barron, who is generally regarded as a stoic professional, took time to compose himself as a room of well over 100 people applauded. And after thanking everyone for their kind words, he delivered a final request to his staff.

"It is my hope that you, the employees of the county, will continue to make Clark County a great place to live, work and play," Barron said. "Thank you all."

The exit interview

Barron sat down with The Columbian for an hourlong interview earlier this week to discuss his time with the county. When asked how he was feeling, he immediately became emotional.

"I feel very much at peace," he said before pausing. "There you go, you make me do this. I didn't think I was going to do this with you."

After a brief chuckle, Barron composed himself and continued:

"I'm at peace, and I'm overwhelmed by the good will that the entire organization has given me. I got all these cards and wonderful meals and words of good will. I had no idea, I truly had no idea how people felt about me, about my management style, about our accomplishments in the almost 15 years that I've been here. I knew intuitively that I was educated to do exactly what I was doing, and that my experience that I brought with me here would serve me well. And I know intuitively that we've done a good job in doing the things the commissioners wanted done over the years, but I had no idea of the depth of the feelings toward me. And I'm totally blown away by that. And totally satisfied. It's quite a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment that what I was taught, and what I did, and how I formed my professional ethics means something to somebody besides myself."

So are you really ready to retire?

I think physically and psychologically, this is enough. My wife, and her life plan, and my life plan, our life plan has kind of been boxed out. We went to France two summers ago and we decided then that this is really what we want to do. Travel, go see people we know in different places, and be together. And I realized it would be 40 years (of working). I mean, how long does one work? When can one say, "it is a career"? I have done as much, if not more, than many others in my field. I feel very satisfied where I am in my career, and with what I've accomplished. Forty years is a long time, and I'll be 70 next year, and I just can't work 12 or 14 hours a day anymore. That's what I did. That's the norm. The other thing is when you don't live with your wife, you tend to work more. (Barron's wife, Jan, lives in Boise). I mean what do I have to go home to? An empty house. I just simply can't do that anymore. I'm satisfied. I'm at peace. I've made the right decision. My wife and I have made the right decision. It's time for me to retire.

But you still seem to have mixed emotions on this, yeah?

Yeah, but it's not a regret. It's a feeling of could I have done more for the people that are left in the organization. And the answer to that is I think I've done the best I can. But you always feel bad just because you're leaving a place, a person, a group of people and you say 'I'm going to miss you' but I think now it's a little more because it's so final. And in my case it's final and I'm moving away.

You're kind of in a position here where sticking around would kind of make you a spectre for the next administrator, aren't you?

Yeah, right. It's kind of a finality thing. That is kind of scary. I'm a person who loves, who built his whole career, who built his whole professional persona on relationships. And those are really important to me. And now, boom, many of them will never be touched again. Some will, I hope. But many won't. And that leaves a kind of empty space. Not that you could do anything, and not that you want to. But there's that feeling. A feeling of loss.

What were some of the biggest things you faced here during your tenure as top administrator of the county?

From an organizational point of view, the biggest challenge we had was keeping the fiscal solidarity in place. With the terrible recession in 2008, we kept ourselves balanced. We cut and we cut early and significantly with $62 million and 270 positions. Terrible experience, but something that had to be done. I'd say, overall, fiscal sustainability is the most important thing we've done to keep the organization in a good position.

What are some of the biggest issues facing the county in the coming years?

This is the year of the freeholders. Depending on how the group chemistry presents itself, I think they're going to try and get done in a year. That would be my hope for the county. We are Clark County at 450,000 people, the northern tier of a major metropolitan area, and we're still grasping for an identity, kind of. I think a part of that is "what is the structure of government?" I think we're at a crossroads in terms of the election and some of the policies of the board of commissioners. That has led to this outgrowth of the freeholder movement and the call for these freeholder elections. But the commissioners themselves put that on the ballot, so maybe we can speculate the commissioners themselves felt it was time for us to be restructuring our government.

Commissioner Mielke said one of your greatest skills was how you tutored and taught commissioners. Commissioner Stuart has praised your counsel, as well. What are your thoughts on those comments?

I think one at my age and experience hopes you are sought for your opinion and for your insights and knowledge. But one never knows if that happens. So for a commissioner to say that about a county administrator is the ultimate compliment. That means they sought you out and you have said something they appreciate and can use. When I was in my graduate work, I had an academic mentor who told us that if you call yourself a professional, then you must teach something to someone every day because ultimately what you are is a teacher. So if I am able to impart knowledge to someone, especially a commissioner, especially my bosses, then that is the ultimate thing a professional can do. Then if you can do that to your senior staff, if you can do that to your employees, then my golly you're living up to the mandate of being a professional.

Erik Hidle: 360-735-4547; http://twitter.com/col_clarkgov; erik.hidle@columbian.com

View a video of retiring Clark County Administrator Bill Barron's farewell speech on The Columbian's YouTube Channel.