A little over two years ago, Shawn Henessee was interviewing as a finalist for the county administrator job in Hood River, Ore. While visiting the area for a job interview, he took a trip with his wife through Clark County.
“I told my wife at the time that this is the No. 1 place I’d want to ever (be),” he said.
On Monday, that wish came true as Henessee began his first day as Clark County manager, a position that oversees the day-to-day administration of the county and implements policies crafted by the county council.
Clark County now has a permanent county manager for the first time in over a year. In May 2017, the county council voted unanimously to fire then-County Manager Mark McCauley. Since then, the county hired Interim County Manager Jim Rumpeltes and relied on department managers to fill in as deputy managers.
The front side of Henessee’s new desk in his sixth-floor office in the Public Service Center is mostly bare, except for a few pieces of paper and business cards. On the back side are stacks of paper. On the wall is a framed Seattle Seahawks poster someone left there. Henessee said he doesn’t have much time to follow sports and will likely hang a painting on the wall.
He said that he spent most of his first day meeting with department heads and county councilors. In the afternoon, he attended a meet-and-greet event with other county employees.
“I want to, first of all, absorb as much as I can as quickly as I can,” said Henessee. Having worked 17 years primarily for county governments, he said that each one is different.
Most recently, Henessee served as administrator of Pleasant Hill, a small town in Missouri near Kansas City. Previously he was assistant director for Jackson County, a large Missouri county covering much of Kansas City, and was county administrator for Marinette County, Wis.
A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Law, he worked as a lawyer for a law firm specializing in land-use issues. But he said he didn’t enjoy the work and has found public service more fulfilling.
His contract, approved in June by the county council, includes a base salary of $170,000, a monthly car allowance of $450, benefits and retirement coverage under the Washington Public Employee’s Retirement System. The council also approved up to $12,000 for moving costs.
Henessee said he figured he would be in a hotel for a while because of the county’s tight housing market, but he said he was able to find a house in Vancouver in 18 hours. Henessee said that it took two trips from Missouri for his wife to move their cars, pets and his large collection of books that includes rare John Steinbeck volumes and lots of science fiction novels. He said he spent last weekend moving into his new house during the heat wave while the temperature in Missouri was 20 degrees lower.
Henessee, 50, said he’s long been intrigued by Washington’s mountains, oceansides, high desert, large population centers, rural areas and less-humid climate. He said he’s wanted to move to the state since his days as an undergraduate at Wichita State University in Kansas and has visited the area multiple times.
“I feel myself to be very lucky,” said Henessee, who hopes to be here for the long term.
When asked how Clark County differed from other counties he’s worked at, he mentioned the state’s Growth Management Act, which requires the county to craft a long-term growth plan. He also noted that it’s easier to qualify an initiative or referendum in Washington than Missouri.
He cited the aging and out-dated jail as a significant issue facing the county as well as the difficulty some residents face in getting permits in unincorporated areas.
“Clark County has an embarrassment of riches in terms of its growth,” he said.
However, he said that despite the growth, he anticipates that the county will face a huge challenge with its upcoming budget. He said that while there may be no “silver bullets” for the issue, he said that there are a number of smaller things that the county can do.
Henessee noted that he’s had new managers or executives brought in during his career in county government. He said that some bosses had quickly moved to establish themselves as being in charge. But he said that’s not his style and he wants to be approachable, allowing employees to come to him with problems.
“I don’t believe in shooting the messenger,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”